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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 253 (March 14, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Creates War Mood After Declaration of Armistice Agreement Repeal

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Since its declaration of abrogating the Korean War Armistice Agreement, North Korea has intensified threats of war against South Korea and the United States while escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula.

   The North has sharply increased its bellicose rhetoric before and after the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to enforce stricter sanctions against the socialist country as punishment for its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.

   On March 5, the North's military issued a menacing statement, angrily protesting the annual military exercises South Korea jointly conducts with the United States as well as international efforts to slap new sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear test.

   The statement threatened to nullify the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The North said the armistice will be "completely" nullified from March 11, when the South Korean-U.S. exercise goes into full swing in the South. The socialist regime also declared the end of nonaggression pacts in protest of the joint military drills between the two allies.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made a series of visits to artillery troops near the western sea border with South Korea urging its soldiers to be on high alert and ready for war.

   Although Pyongyang threatened to cancel the Armistice Agreement and to cut the hotline between the two countries, Seoul said the mutual agreement cannot be unilaterally canceled. North Korea's vitriolic rhetoric has continued after the allies pushed to punish the North for its nuclear test.

   Moreover, North Korea has mobilized mass rallies denouncing the U.N. sanctions and the South Korea-U.S. joint exercises. About 100,000 people gathered at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on March 7 to support the Supreme Commander's statements on the abrogation of the Armistice Agreement, ratcheting up the mood for war against South Korea and the U.S. Similar rallies followed in other cities and counties across the country.

   North Korea's foreign ministry warned on March 7 of "preemptive nuclear strikes" against hostile forces, citing joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, as the U.N. Security Council prepared to vote on a sanctions resolution.

   On March 9, Pyongyang's foreign ministry dismissed a fresh U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution as a byproduct of U.S. hostile policy, and vowed to make its status as a nuclear power and satellite-launching country permanent.

   "To safeguard the highest interest of the country and deal with efforts to trigger a nuclear war by the United States, we will exercise our right to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against the strongholds of aggressors," the North's foreign ministry said in a statement.

   The North's anger, in particular, stemmed from a large-scale annual joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States. The allies called it a defensive drill, but Pyongyang claims it to be a prelude to a nuclear war.

   Outside observers said such a step could include more nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches. The North tested two other nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, while launching five long-range rockets since 1998.

   On March 8, Pyongyang's official media carried a statement from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, blasting Seoul and Washington for staging "the most dangerous drills for a nuclear war."

   The committee said that it will sever the emergency hotline link connecting the two countries, and warned that Pyongyang is ready to use force to destroy aggressors and unify the two countries. Moreover, it lashed out at the South Korean military, which vowed to attack the entire command structure of the North if Pyongyang attacked Seoul, by making clear it will raze Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential office, to the ground.

   North Korea drummed up threats of an all-out nuclear war on March 10, one day ahead of the two allies planned joint military drill which the communist country has denounced as targeting the North.

   "Our front-line military groups, the army, the navy and the air force, the anti-aircraft units and the strategic rocket units, who have entered the final all-out war stage, are awaiting the final order to strike," North Korea's Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the governing Workers' Party, said, adding the country's nuclear arms are also prepared for combat.

   "Puppet regimes in the U.S. and South Korea will be turned into a sea of fire in the blink of an eye if a war breaks out," the newspaper said, repeating the threats of a nuclear war the country has issued in recent weeks over the joint war exercises.

   On the day of the Key Resolve that kicked off on March 11, North Korea's state media said the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War is no longer valid and warned it is bracing for a showdown with enemy forces.

   This is the third time that the North has unilaterally severed the hotline, with the two other instances taking place in 2008 and 2010. On the previous two occasions the link was restored after cross-border relations improved.

   The committee in charge of conducting talks with the South also warned all non-aggression pacts between Seoul and Pyongyang were null and void as of March 11, and made clear the country can take military measures to counter provocations caused by the start of the annual South Korea-U.S. Key Resolve exercise.

   Rodong Sinmun said the time for the showdown war is now at hand and claimed the cease-fire pact that barely maintained its existence was now null and void. "Under the guidance of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK), the undefeated might of the military will now target the United States and by destroying the 'evil empire' herald the historic start of a unified country," the newspaper said. Pyongyang commonly refers to Washington as an evil empire or imperialistic power.

   The media outlet also said the North has placed its formidable array of strategic missiles and multiple rocket launcher systems on standby to go to war, adding that the entire population has become soldiers.

   It said all government and party organizations and agricultural cooperatives have been placed on emergency mobilization status and the Red Worker-Peasant Militia and the Young Red Guards have been ordered to man their numerous posts.

   In Seoul, military sources said North Korea has started submarine drills and stepped up preparations for nationwide military exercises, which may be timed to coincide with annual joint drills by South Korea and the United States. The large-scale firearm drill will be held near the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, while nationwide military maneuvers will be carried out, the source said.

   According to multiple military sources, the North has recently declared a "no-fly zone" in the west and the east of the Korean Peninsula during the March 11-20 Key Resolve training period.

   While tensions are increasing, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited front-line units along the communist country's southwestern coast, fueling concerns that there might be another military clash between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea.

   Kim's visits to military garrisons on Mu and Jangjae islets late last week and his tour of Wolnae islet on March 11 can be seen as Pyongyang trying to launch another attack in the region that has seen several bloody clashes since the late 1990s.

   Seoul controls the so-called Seohae (West Sea) islands of Baengnyeong, Daecheong, Socheong, Yeonpyeong and Udo, which allow the country to maintain the Northern Limit Line (NLL). The NLL acts as the de facto sea border, but Pyongyang has never recognized its legitimacy and drew its own sea demarcation line and sea lanes in 2000, which Seoul has also rejected.

   Navies of the two Koreas clashed in 1999 and 2002 near Yeonpyeong Island, with another skirmish taking place off Daecheong Island in 2009. This was followed by the sinking of the South Korean Naval vessel Cheonan in March 2010 near the NLL, leaving 46 sailors dead, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong eight months later that resulted in four deaths including two civilians.

   North Korean analyst said the visits to the units at Mu and Jangjae, which took part in the shelling of Yeonpyeong, and the trip to Wolnae that lies only 12 kilometers from Baengnyeong, are to help strengthen Kim's grip on power and to show the military his fortitude and leadership capabilities by inspecting units in view of South Korean troops.

   During the tour of Mu and Jangjae, Kim pointed out that waters off of North Korea's west coast were sensitive, but made clear to troops that if one enemy shell fell in North Korean waters or its territory, soldiers must be ready to act and destroy the aggressors.

   "The visits and spike in military activity in the North and in particular along the coastal regions may be a sign that the North may again attack the Seohae islands or trigger conflict in waters near these territories," said a military source, asking for anonymity. He said South Korea's military intelligence reported that North Korea has moved many of its coastal guns into caves and positioned its 240 millimeter multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLS) in areas where they can strike South Korean military targets.

   The official added that the presence of many top military officers in Kim's entourage like Choe Ryong-hae, director of the military General Political Bureau; Kim Kyok-sik, Armed Forces minister; and Kim Yong-chol, head of the Army's Reconnaissance General Bureau, can be a sign that Pyongyang may be thinking of launching another strike.

   Reflecting this view, a unification ministry source said that Pyongyang has the capability to launch a strike at any time, and that this is putting pressure on Seoul policymakers to come up with a viable countermeasure to prevent such development and to limit any fallout.

   Others, however, said that while the North is upping the ante, it may not be interested in launching an attack. Advocates of such views claim Pyongyang is making threats mainly to bolster its leader's credentials.

   Kim Jong-un took power suddenly after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011 and was not well known even within North Korea. This lack of grooming for the top post has raised speculation that the leader's control over the country is not as strong as that of his late father or Kim Il-sung, the incumbent's grandfather and founder of the communist state.

   "The visit to units can show Kim being firm against foreign powers that can make him look like a bold and decisive leader," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

   The researcher said that with South Korea and the United States engaged in the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises, it is not to Pyongyang's advantage to launch an attack. However, he conceded that if South Korean conducts live fire exercises near the NLL, the North may respond with a limited attack, similar to the attack against Yeonpyeong.

   Nevertheless, North Korea's air force has sharply increased jet fighter training flights in the past few days, with the number of sorties reaching as many as 700 on the day South Korea and the United States launched a joint war game, a military source in Seoul said on March 13.

   The North's move is seen as part of efforts to beef up combat readiness and closely monitor joint drills in the South. "Flights of North Korean air force's fighter jets and helicopters reached about 700 sorties on March 11," the source said on the condition of anonymity. "It is seen as unprecedented in scale."

   The recent sortie is nearly six times more than the maximum number of flights in a day during last year's summer training, the source said.

   The impoverished nation is known to have restricted flying time to save hard currency as its fighter jets depend on imported fuel. North Korea is believed to have accumulated about 1.5 tons of fuel for wartime use, according to military officials.

   Amid growing jitters over the peace on the Korean Peninsula, the isolated country is intentionally ratcheting up tension among its citizens, according to the country's media.

   In a report under the headline of "DPRK People in War Posture," the KCNA said that "the whole country turned out to be frontline areas."

   Rodong Sinmun said organizations under the control of the WPK are preparing for combat under the decision of the party chapters in cities. In addition, the number of people who are volunteering for military service is growing in the country, the newspaper said.

   Meanwhile, Seoul's defense ministry said on March 12 that North Korea's daily threats of war are part of its psychological tactics to pressure South Korea and the United States to change their policy on Pyongyang and unite its own people.

   "North Korea has consistently and blatantly issued a series of bellicose warnings of provocations, which are seen as an attempt to put psychological pressure on South Korea," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing.

   The North has made some residents near border areas live in underground shelters and prepare emergency food rations, and buses in the capital city of Pyongyang have been covered with camouflage nets to create a "war-like atmosphere," Kim said.

   Pyongyang's recent coverage of Kim Jong-un's front-line military inspections near the western sea border and the military chief's visit to the border village of Panmunjom in the past days are also part of the psychological tactics, Kim said.

   "Currently, signs of provocations have not been detected. I'm saying this so people don't get swayed by North Korea's psychological tactics," Kim said, adding additional nuclear tests or a long-range missile launch are not likely to happen for the time being.

   "It is believed that North Korea tries to unite its people through a series of military and political activities, while pressuring South Korea and the U.S. to change their policy on the North in light of the U.N. sanctions," Kim said.

   North Korea's military is preparing a large scale drill involving all three services later this month, which is expected to be attended by Kim Jong-un, Kim said. "As these drills could lead to provocations, we are closely monitoring North Korea's military," Kim said.

   Some observers said Pyongyang could launch attacks in cyberspace or low-intensity provocations similar to the sinking of the corvette Cheonan or artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, both of which took place in 2010, killing a total of 50 South Koreans.