North Korea's consistently belligerent rhetoric reached new heights this week as a general said the country has a long-range missile armed with nuclear warheads on standby , and supreme leader Kim Jong-un told troops to " prepare for war ."
Odds are hostilities will continue into next week as the U.S. and South Korea conduct annual military exercises near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries, and North Korea continues large-scale military exercises.
"Tensions will likely go up further next week as both sides start military drills," Ellen Kim, assistant director and Fellow of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told BI. "So this is not a good situation."
The Hermit Kingdom also closed the border, cut off phone hotlines, and cancelled the nonaggression pact between the countries; clamped down on overseas travel and domestic movements; and established no-fly and no-sail zones off its coasts as the UN Security council signed a new wave of sanctions.
“Tensions are high in North Korea as if there is a likely war to be triggered soon,” a source in North Pyongang province who recently visited China told Radio Free Asia.
As Kim explains: the North interprets joint U.S.-South Korea exercises "as an act of war — that's why they were ratcheting up the rhetoric. ... North Korea sees this as the other side trying to go into North Korea."
Which means that a slip-up during live fire drills — which will take place within an ear shot of one another — could lead to an unintended confrontation.
"Everyone is ready," Kim said. "This is a very sensitive situation and you don't want to make a small mistake because it could really lead to a big confrontation ... [it] really could be disastrous."
Further raising the stakes, the fact that the North cut off the hotlines means that if "there is any mistake there's no way to communicate that (it was an accident) ," Kim said. "This situation we really don't want to see."
Even if the exercises go on without a hitch, Kim believes that in the short term "it's highly likely that we will see another provocation from North Korea — a missile test, a nuclear test, or even an attack on South Korean soil like the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in 2010."
That's because North Korea " can use this opportunity to their advantage ... to test their capabilities and advance their technology," Kim said.
The kicker is that no one really knows who is truly directing North Korea's military given that Jong-un is so inexperienced and much his father's posse is still around.
"Basically we don't know what Kim Jong-un is thinking," Kim said. "This young leader may be more reckless than his father or, if not, he may not be in full control and hardliners are in control of the country."
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