SEOUL—As the South Korean and U.S. militaries began a second phase of their annual joint winter exercises Monday, North Korea cut off a phone hotline to the South and repeated its threat to nullify the Korean War armistice.
Seoul said the North was conducting its own military drills, but the activity didn't suggest an imminent threat.
"There has been no unusual movement spotted in North Korea," a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in late afternoon. "It has been quiet so far."
Following a week of aggressive rhetoric from North Korea, its main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reported Monday that the 1953 armistice suspending the Korean War had been "declared invalid." Pyongyang routinely portrays the annual military drills in the South as a prelude to an invasion of the North, and declares that it will retaliate mercilessly for any violation of its territory. But this latest round of threats is higher-pitched, reflecting that Pyongyang is also bristling over sanctions imposed by the United Nations for its Feb. 12 nuclear test.
Now, it strikes me that Kim feels backed into a corner, and to be sure, this could make him pretty dangerous. After all, China not only voted for the UN sanctions, it helped write them so as to mitigate their severity as best they could. They can't be particularly happy with either the US or North Korea right now.
Included in those sanctions, however, were aircraft and shipping inspections, as well as a ban on trade with North Korea. This last in particular -- while China as Pyong Yang's biggest trade partner by far will likely ignore -- had to sting a lot.
But ratcheting up war talk does not seem to be the response one would expect from anyone except perhaps a megalomaniac who believes what he sees in the mirror, and surely China has to grab hold of his leash and yank hard. They seem reluctant to do that (much like America in the past has been reluctant to tug Israel's chain.)
Kim could inflict major damage on South Korea, to be sure, and disrupt the global economy. He could also attack Japan, and the US Minor Territories in the South Pacific, if he chose to. Any trade partners he has in Southeast Asia are small potatoes compared to China.
And South Korea, of course. Yes. You read that correctly. Roughly one-fifth of the North's trade is with the South.
So it doesn't seem likely that suddenly an alliance will form behind Kim and he has to know this. That doesn't mean he won't go full metal jacket, however.