SEOUL — South Korea and the United States launched joint drills Monday involving thousands of troops, defying North Korea’s apocalyptic threats to repudiate the 60-year-old Korean War armistice in retaliation.
The start of the two-week “Key Resolve” exercise follows a week of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea threatening nuclear war over U.N. sanctions adopted after its third atomic test last month. Pyongyang has condemned the annual joint maneuvers as a provocative invasion rehearsal and announced that — effective Monday — it was scrapping the 1953 armistice and voiding nonaggression treaties signed with the South.
The South’s Unification Ministry confirmed that the North appeared to have carried through on another promise to cut the hotline between Pyongyang and Seoul.
“The North did not answer our call this morning,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
The hotline was installed in 1971, and the North has severed it on five occasions in the past — most recently in 2010.
Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling communist party, confirmed in Monday’s edition the “complete end” of the Korean War armistice.
“With the ceasefire agreement blown apart ... no one can predict what will happen from now on,” the newspaper said.
Voiding the armistice theoretically paves the way for a resumption of hostilities, as the two Koreas never signed a formal peace treaty and remain technically at war.
“The North is giving the impression it wants to put things back to where they were 60 years ago,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Experts point out that North Korea has declared the ceasefire dead or obsolete nearly a dozen times in the past 20 years. On the last occasion in 2009, the North specifically said it would no longer guarantee the safety of U.S. or South Korean naval vessels operating near the disputed maritime border.
The sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean island near the border followed in 2010.
Saber-rattling and displays of brinkmanship are nothing new in the region, but there are concerns that the current situation is so volatile that one accidental step could escalate into serious confrontation and conflict. Having issued so many dire warnings, the North will feel obliged to take some provocative action, observers say.
Yang predicted short-range missile tests or an incursion across the sea border. Yang said he found it “particularly alarming” that North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-Un, appeared content to act with no concern for the response of ally China — widely seen as losing patience with its volatile neighbor.
“Key Resolve” is an annual, largely computer-simulated exercise but still involves the mobilization of more than 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. military personnel. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said North Korea is expected to carry out its own large-scale military drill along its eastern front this week, involving the army, navy and air force. North Korean artillery bases on islands close to the disputed maritime border have already placed their cannon in firing positions, ministry officials said.
The North’s foreign ministry has already warned that a second Korean War is “unavoidable” and threatened “pre-emptive nuclear attacks” on the United States and South Korea. The North is not seen as having the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland. South Korea, which usually shrugs off Pyongyang’s fiery rhetoric, has promised to retaliate to any provocation with a precision strike on the North’s leadership command.
The surge in tensions is an early challenge to new South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, who was sworn in only two weeks ago and is still without a confirmed defense minister, national security adviser or intelligence chief.