NORTH Korea yesterday declared it had entered “a state of war” against its southern neighbour and threatened to shut down a border factory complex that is the last major symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.
The UK has joined calls for North Korea to tone down the war-mongering rhetoric after the reclusive Communist state made the threat – the latest in a series since the United Nations imposed new sanctions in response to its latest nuclear test last month.
The North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, 30, yesterday threatened the United States after its B-2 bombers took part in an annual training exercise with South Korean forces.
Some analysts believe the inflammatory language is aimed at pushing Washington into talks and that the regime would not risk full-blown conflict, but tensions are high.
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman in London said it had “noted” the statement from North Korea.
“We have made clear to North Korea that its long-term interests will only be served by constructive engagement with the international community. These threatening statements will only seek to isolate it further,” he said.
“The armistice agreement has enabled the Korean peninsula to benefit from 60 years’ peace. Maintaining it is in the best interests of all.”
The North’s threats are seen as efforts to provoke the new government in Seoul, led by president Park Geun-hye, to change its policies towards Pyongyang, and to open diplomatic talks with the White House that could secure it more aid. North Korea’s moves are also seen as ways to build domestic unity as Kim Jong-un strengthens his hand with the military. He became North Korea’s leader after his father Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011.
On Thursday, US military officials revealed that two B-2 stealth bombers dropped dummy munitions on an uninhabited South Korean island as part of annual defence drills that the North sees as rehearsals for an invasion.
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 yesterday that it would deal with South Korea according to “wartime regulations” and would retaliate against any provocations by the US and South Korea without notice.
“Now that the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] 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 the official Korean Central News Agency, referring to the North’s official name.
Provocations “will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war,” the statement added.
Hours after the statement, Pyongyang threatened to shut down the jointly run Kaesong industrial park, expressing anger over media reports suggesting the complex remained open because it was a source of hard currency for the impoverished regime.
“If the puppet group seeks to tarnish the image of the DPRK even a bit, while speaking of the zone whose operation has been barely maintained, we will shut down the zone without mercy,” said a spokesman for the North’s office controlling Kaesong.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry responded by calling the North Korean threat “unhelpful” to the countries’ already frayed relations and vowed to ensure the safety of hundreds of South Korean managers who cross the border to their jobs in Kaesong.
South Korean defence spokesman Kim Min-seok said its military was aware that increasing North Korean drills near the border could lead to an actual provocation.
“The series of North Korean threats – announcing all-out war, scrapping the cease-fire and 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 Min-seok said. “We are maintaining full military readiness in order to protect our people’s lives and security.”
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Naval skirmishes in the disputed waters off the Korean coast have led to bloody battles several times over the years.
But on the streets of Seoul yesterday, 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 tutor. “But South Koreans don’t seem to be that nervous because we’ve heard these threats from the North before.”
The Kaesong industrial park, which is run with North Korean labour and South Korean know-how, has been operating normally, despite Pyongyang shutting down a communications channel used to co-ordinate travel by South Korean workers to and from the park just across the border in North Korea.
The rivals are now co-ordinating travel indirectly, through an office at Kaesong that has outside lines to South Korea.
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 the South Korea-US military drills and new UN sanctions over its nuclear test last month.
Dozens of South Korean firms run factories in the border town of Kaesong. Using North Korea’s cheap, efficient labour, the Kaesong complex produced £310 million worth of goods last year.
The White House said it was fully aware of North Korea’s latest threats.
“We’ve seen reports of a new and unconstructive statement from North Korea. We take these threats seriously and remain in close contact with our South Korean allies,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for president Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “But we would also note that North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric and threats, and [yesterday’s] announcement follows that familiar pattern,” she said.