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North Korean threats

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North Korean President Kim Jon-Un’s menacing conduct in recent weeks may be aimed at bolstering his image at home but it risks the frightening possibility of an overreaction or a miscalculation that could renew the military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

In his latest move escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, President Kim cut the last remaining direct link between the two Koreas, when he shut down a hotline used to arrange the passage of workers and goods between the two countries to an industrial complex in North Korea. Pyongyang said there was no need for communication given a situation “where a war may break out at any moment.”

To give that some context, President Kim had also ordered troops into “combat readiness” in response to joint military drills by the United States and South Korea. The North also threatened missile attacks against “U.S. imperialist troops” in Guam and Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland with bellicose rhetoric of engulfing Seoul and Washington, the “stronghold of evils,” in a “sea of fire” in a video showing the U.S. Capitol being blown up.

North Korea is not believed to have nuclear armed missiles, although it has in defiance of international opinion conducted three nuclear tests. The most recent one was in February, which led to more stringent U.N. sanctions to force North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Shutting down the hotline and the latest saber-rattling are believed to be a response to the sanctions.

President Kim has also threatened to nullify the armistice signed 60 years ago in July that ended the conflict between North and South Korea in a truce, although the two sides are still technically at war.

His belligerence is seen by many as a bargaining ploy, a tactic to wrest economic aid from the United States and other nations in exchange for backing off on his military threats. That has succeeded in the past, but does not appear to be successful this time.

His talk of attacking Washington is empty rhetoric, but the North has missiles capable of reaching beyond Seoul to Japan and Guam. Tens of thousands of troops face off on either side of the demilitarized zone.

A misstep, a misunderstanding or a miscalculation by either side in a volatile atmosphere could get lead to a conventional war, particularly with such an unpredictable foe. The United States has little leverage with North Korea. The best hope now of reducing President Kim’s rhetoric lies with China. A destabilized peninsula or broader regional conflict is not in Beijing’s interests either. It has to take tough action to persuade President Kim to alter his course before matters get out of hand.

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