North Korea on Saturday declared it was in a “state of war” with South Korea and warned Seoul and Washington that any provocation would swiftly escalate into an all-out nuclear conflict.
The United States said it took the announcement “seriously”, but noted it followed a familiar pattern, while South Korea largely dismissed it as an old threat dressed in new clothing.
It was the latest in a string of dire-sounding pronouncements from Pyongyang that have been matched by tough warnings from Seoul and Washington, fuelling international concern that the situation might spiral out of control.
“As of now, inter-Korea relations enter a state of war and all matters between the two Koreas will be handled according to wartime protocol,” the North said in a government statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
“The long-standing situation of the Korean peninsula being neither at peace nor at war is finally over,” the statement said, adding that any US or South Korean provocation would trigger a “a nuclear war”.
The two Koreas have technically remained at war for the past six decades because the 1950-53 Korean War concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
The North had announced earlier this month that it was ripping up the armistice and other bilateral peace pacts signed with Seoul in protest against South Korea-US joint military exercises.
The White House labelled the latest statement from Pyongyang as “unconstructive” and, while taking it “seriously”, sought to place the immediate threat level in context.
“North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric and threats and today’s announcement follows that familiar pattern,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
In Seoul, the Unification Ministry insisted the war threat was “not really new”. The Defence Ministry vowed to “retaliate thoroughly” to any provocation, but added that no notable troop movement had been observed along the border.
As with past crises, Pyongyang did not allow the tensions to impact the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint South-North venture that provides the regime with crucial hard currency.
“The border crossing to Kaesong is functioning normally,” said Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo-Jin.
Most observers still believe this will remain a verbal rather than a physical battle.
“The North Koreans in recent weeks have turned rhetoric into performance art,” said Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist and executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington.
“When they have already declared the armistice null and void, I do not think a declaration of war breaks new ground,” Flake said.
But he added that the situation had now become so volatile that any slight miscalculation carried the potential for rapid escalation.
“The danger is, when the North Koreans have threatened a nuclear attack on Washington, they may not know a limit on how much they can get away with,” said Flake.
Both China and Russia called for calm Friday, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voicing particular concern.
“We can simply see the situation getting out of control, it would spiral down into a vicious circle,” Lavrov told reporters.
His warning came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ordered missile units to prepare to strike US mainland and military bases, after US stealth bombers flew over South Korea.
The high-stakes standoff has its roots in North Korea’s successful long-range rocket launch in December and the third nuclear test it carried out in February.