North Korea ratcheted up tensions with its U.S.-backed neighbor on Monday, moving special forces on amphibious landing craft closer to the frontline, one day after reports that most of its submarines evidently had been forward deployed.
The movement of the landing craft and special forces to a base less than 40 miles from the Northern Limit Line maritime border – which Pyongyang does not recognize – was reported by South Korea’s official Yonhap news agency, citing military sources.
On Sunday, defense ministry officials said that about 50 of North Korea’s 70-strong submarine fleet, an unusually large number, had left their bases and their whereabouts were unknown.
(Investigators blamed a torpedo launched from a North Korean submarine for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, which cost the lives of 46 sailors.)
The developments came as senior officials from the two Koreas held lengthy talks in the Demilitarized Zone village of Panmunjom, aimed at defusing a crisis described as the worst of its kind in at least two years.
Since the 1950-53 Korea War ended without a formal peace agreement, the two Koreas remain officially at war. U.S. troops have been stationed on the peninsula ever since to help defend South Korea against aggression from the North.
The Stalinist regime has a long history of brinkmanship – escalating tensions, then seeking concessions in return for easing them.
The latest flare-up began early this month when Seoul accused Pyongyang of responsibility for landmines that exploded near the border on August 4, seriously wounding two South Korean soldiers.
South Korea in response restarted a program, which had been suspended more than a decade ago, of disseminating anti-Pyongyang propaganda messages across the DMZ from giant loudspeaker systems.
North Korea fired artillery shells in the direction of the speakers, prompting the South to return fire in a rare exchange across the world’s most heavily-militarized frontier.
A North Korean diplomat at the U.N. in New York then declared that Kim Jong-un had ordered troops near the DMZ to enter a “quasi state of war.” A 48-hour ultimatum was given for the propaganda broadcasts to stop, although shortly before it expired on Saturday North Korea offered to hold talks in Panmunjom.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye showed no sign of backing down on Monday, saying her government would continue to “take appropriate measures” and to air the broadcasts until the Kim regime apologizes and pledges to stop provocative actions.
North Korea denies responsibility for the original landmine detonations. The regime’s KCNA news agency at the weekend reiterated its position that the blasts had been “fabricated by the puppet military group keen on provoking the DPRK.”
“The puppet military gangsters would be well advised not to forget even a moment that they may perish in a sea of fire due to their repeated provocations against the DPRK,” it said. “War maniacs always met miserable ends.”
The “puppet” reference is to Park’s government, which the North reviles as a tool of the United States. DPRK is North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The Daily NK a South Korean-based news service focusing on the North, attributed Kim’s anger over the broadcasts to the “potential for anti-Pyongyang messages to influence the minds of young North Korean soldiers, which the young leader deems a threat to the maintenance of the regime.”
There are currently almost 30,000 U.S. troops deployed in South Korea. U.S. Forces Korea said Sunday it was closely monitoring the situation, adding that “the safety of our personnel and families remains paramount.”
The U.S. and South Korea are holding joint military maneuvers, a regular occurrence which commonly riles the North.
“The joint military exercises are staged on the DPRK’s doorstep, not in the U.S., in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or in any other places that do not pose threat to the DPRK,” a foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang said on Friday.
He charged that the maneuvers had become “extremely provocative and aggressive by aiming to remove the DPRK’s leadership and occupy Pyongyang.”
In the spring of 2013, joint exercises were held shortly after North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test, its third since 2006. Amid angry rhetoric from the North, including a threat to abrogate the 1953 truce agreement, the U.S. brought B-52 bombers into the drill, and then two B-2 stealth bombers which flew directly from Missouri to South Korea.
During the current flare-up, the U.S. flew four F-16s alongside four South Korean F-15s on Saturday. On Monday, the defense ministry in Seoul indicated that “the deployment of strategic U.S. military assets” was under discussion.
The U.S. invariably looks to China to urge its ally in Pyongyang to calm down when tensions erupt. Beijing is often reluctant to lay blame, however, and its foreign ministry in a statement Friday merely called on “relevant parties” to exercise restraint.