SEOUL — North Korea warned Seoul today that the Korean Peninsula was entering “a state of war” and threatened to shut down a factory complex that's the last major symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
Analysts say a full-scale conflict is extremely unlikely, noting that the Korean Peninsula has remained in a technical state of war for 60 years. But the North's continued threats toward Seoul and Washington, including a vow to launch a nuclear strike, have raised worries that a misjudgment in how to address the warnings could lead to a clash.
The Kaesong industrial park, which is run with North Korean labor and South Korean know-how, has been operating normally, despite Pyongyang shutting down a communications channel typically used to coordinate travel by South Korean workers to and from the park just across the border in North Korea. The rivals are now coordinating the travel indirectly, through an office at Kaesong that has outside lines to South Korea.
But an identified spokesman for the North's office controlling Kaesong said today that it would close the factory park if South Korea continued to undermine its dignity. Pyongyang expressed anger over media reports that suggested the factory remained open because it was a source of hard currency for the impoverished North.
Dozens of South Korean firms run factories in the border town of Kaesong. Using North Korea's cheap, efficient labor, the Kaesong complex produced $470 million worth of goods in 2012.
North Korea has previously made such threats about Kaesong without acting on them, and recent weeks have seen a torrent of bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang. North Korea is angry about annual South Korea-U.S. military drills and new U.N. sanctions over its nuclear test last month.
North Korea's threats are seen as efforts to provoke the new government in Seoul, led by President Park Geun-hye, to change its policies toward Pyongyang, and to win diplomatic talks with Washington that could get it more aid. North Korea's moves are also seen as ways to build domestic unity as young leader Kim Jong Un strengthens his military credentials.
On Thursday, U.S. military officials revealed that two B-2 stealth bombers dropped dummy munitions on front lines as part of drills with South Korean troops. Hours later, Kim ordered his generals to put rockets on standby and threatened to strike American targets if provoked.
North Korea said in a statement today that it would deal with South Korea according to “wartime regulations” and would retaliate against any provocations by the United States and South Korea without notice.
“Now that the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK have entered into an actual military action, the inter-Korean relations have naturally entered the state of war,” said the statement, which was carried by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, referring to the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Provocations “will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war,” the statement said.
South Korea's military remains mindful of the possibility that North Korean drills could lead to an actual provocation, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.
“The series of North Korean threats — announcing all-out war, scrapping the cease-fire agreement and the non-aggression agreement between the South and the North, cutting the military hotline, entering into combat posture No. 1 and entering a ‘state of war’ — are unacceptable and harm the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said.
“We are maintaining full military readiness in order to protect our people's lives and security,” he told reporters today.
Naval skirmishes in the disputed waters off the Korean coast have led to bloody battles several times over the years.
However, on the streets of Seoul, South Koreans said they were not worried about an attack from North Korea.
“From other countries’ point of view, it may seem like an extremely urgent situation,” said Kang Tae-hwan, a private tutor. “But South Koreans don't seem to be that nervous because we've heard these threats from the North before.”