SEOUL: North Korea Wednesday blasted South Korea’s decision to join a US-led anti-proliferation exercise as tantamount to a declaration of war, and threatened an attack if any of its ships are stopped.
The communist state’s powerful military declared it is no longer bound by the armistice which ended the 1950-53 war on the peninsula.
The military, in a statement on official media, said it “will not guarantee the legal status” of five South Korean islands near the two countries’ disputed border in the Yellow Sea.
Neither would it guarantee the safe passage of US and South Korean naval and civilian vessels in the area.
Analysts said the strongly-worded announcement, two days after the North shocked the world with a nuclear test, could set the stage for limited naval clashes in the area — the scene of bloody firefights in 1999 and 2002.
The North said it considers Seoul’s decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) “as a declaration of war against us.”
“Our military will no longer be bound by the armistice accord as the current US leadership… has drawn the puppets (South Korea) into the PSI,” said the statement from its military representative at the border truce village of Panmunjom.
The statement said that if the armistice is no longer binding, “the Korean peninsula will go back to a state of war.” This meant North Korean troops would take “corresponding military action,” it said without elaborating.
“Those who have provoked us will face unimaginable merciless punishment.”
It added: “Any tiny hostile acts against our republic, including the stopping and searching of our peaceful vessels… will face an immediate and strong military strike in response.
“The US imperialists and the traitor Lee Myung-Bak’s group have driven the situation on the Korean peninsula into a state of war.”
Relations have been icy since President Lee took office in Seoul in February 2008 and took a tougher line with the North.
The statement also said the military has “strong military power and striking means” which can hit a “vital US point.” The US stations 28,500 troops in the South.
South Korea’s defence ministry responded calmly and said no reinforcements are being sent to the region. “The military is maintaining its defence posture as strongly as usual,” a spokesman told AFP.
“The military is closely monitoring the situation while thoroughly preparing for any contingencies.”
Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank said the statement “will inevitably raise inter-Korean tension further and a naval clash is highly possible off the west coast.”
One of the North’s warships might violate the sea border, and the North could test-fire more short-range missiles, he said.
“However, the two Koreas will exercise self-restraint as they do not want a full-scale military conflict,” Cheong told AFP.
Cha Du-Hyeon of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses said the North may conduct provocative naval activities leading to a clash.
“Yet there will be no major clashes between North Korean and South Korean ground forces despite the North’s rhetoric.”