SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea put its troops on alert and cut the
last hot line to Seoul on Monday as the American and South Korean
militaries began joint maneuvers. The communist regime warned that even
the slightest provocation could trigger war.
The North stressed that provocation would include any attempt to
interfere with its impending launch of a satellite into orbit. U.S. and
Japanese officials suspect the launch is a cover for a test of a
long-range attack missile and have suggested they might move to
intercept the rocket.
"Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a
war," North Korea's military threatened in a statement carried by the
official Korean Central News Agency. Any interception attempt will draw
"a just, retaliatory strike," it said.
The North has been on a steady retreat from reconciliation since
President Lee Myung-bak took office in the South a year ago. After Lee
said the North must continue dismantling its nuclear program if it
wants aid, Pyongyang cut ties, suspended joint projects and stepped up
its belligerence rhetoric.
"The danger of a military conflict is further increasing than ever
before on the Korean Peninsula because of the saber rattling which
involves armed forces huge enough to fight a war," the North's news
agency warned as Pyongyang put its armed forces on standby for combat.
Allied commanders say the exercises are nothing more than the annual
drills the two nations have held for years, while the North has been
condemning them as a rehearsal for invasion.
Analysts say North Korea's heated words are designed to grab President
Barack Obama's attention. With South Korea cutting off aid, the
impoverished North is angling for a diplomatic coup of establishing
direct ties with the U.S., analysts say.
For weeks, the North has said it is forging ahead with plans to send a
communications satellite into space, a launch that U.S. and Japanese
officials say would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution banning
the North from testing ballistic missiles.
That decree came after the North test-fired a long-range missile and conducted an underground nuclear weapon test in 2006.
Analysts say the launch could occur late this month or in early April,around the time North Korea's new parliament, elected Sunday, convenes
its first session with leader Kim Jong Il at its helm.
Kim, 67, was among legislators unanimously elected to a five-year term,the North's state media said. Elections in North Korea are largely a
formality, with the ruling Workers' Party hand-picking one candidate
for each district and voters endorsing the sole nominee.
Observers were watching the results for signs of a shift in policy - or
hints that Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke last August, might be
grooming a son to succeed him. None of his three sons appeared on a
list of lawmakers announced on state TV late Monday.
In Seoul, Obama's special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, urged
Pyongyang not to fire a missile, which he said would be an "extremely
"Whether they describe it as a satellite launch or something else makes
no difference," Bosworth said after talks with his South Korean
counterpart on drawing Pyongyang back to international talks on the
North's nuclear disarmament.
South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman, Won Tae-jae, played down the
North's threats as "rhetoric," but added that the country's military
was ready to deal with any contingencies.
Hundreds of South Koreans were stranded in the northern border town of
Kaesong after Pyongyang severed the last communications link between
the two governments to protest the U.S.-South Korean military exercises
that began Monday.
North Korea banned nearly all cross-border traffic in December amid
deteriorating relations with Seoul but has allowed a skeleton staff of
South Koreans to work at a joint industrial zone in Kaesong that is a
crucial source of hard currency for the isolated communist regime.
The two Koreas use the hot line to coordinate the passage of people and
goods through the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, and its
suspension shut down traffic and stranded about 570 South Koreans north
of the border.
All South Koreans in Kaesong are safe, Seoul's Unification Ministry said as it called on Pyongyang to restore communications.
Cutting the hot line for the duration of the 12-day U.S.-South Korean
maneuvers leaves the two Koreas without any means of quick, direct
communication at a time of high tension, when even an accidental
skirmish could trigger fighting.
North and South Korea technically remain in a state of war since their
1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Hundreds of
thousands of soldiers are massed on each side of the DMZ.
The United States, which has about 28,000 military personnel in South
Korea, routinely holds joint military exercises with the South.
Last week, the North threatened danger to South Korean passenger planes
flying near its airspace if the maneuvers went ahead, and several
airlines rerouted their flights as a precaution.
Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. commander, said the joint exercises -
involving some 26,000 U.S. troops, an unspecified number of South
Korean soldiers and a U.S. aircraft carrier - are "not tied in any way
to any political or real world event."