As the White House publicly continued to play down saber-rattling rhetoric by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the Obama administration appears to be taking seriously the young leader’s claim that a “state of war” exists with South Korea, and has been moving U.S. naval and air assets into position for a possible showdown.
The United States deployed F-22 stealth fighter jets on Sunday to take part in a series of military drills. And on Monday, U.S. officials confirmed that a Japan-based U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer capable of shooting down ballistic missiles had been positioned slightly closer to the Korean peninsula, though still within its usual operating area.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s new president in Seoul warned on Monday that her nation would strike back quickly if the North stages any attack as tensions ratcheted higher on the Korean peninsula amid shrill rhetoric from Pyongyang and the U.S. deployment of radar-evading fighter planes.
"If there is any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations," South Korean President Park Geun-hye told the defense minister and senior officials at a meeting on Monday.
Nevertheless, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday the U.S. has not detected any military mobilization or repositioning of forces from Pyongyang to back up the threats from Kim.
Carney called the U.S. response "prudent." He noted that such tough talk from North Korea is part of a familiar pattern.
While he acknowledged that the White House takes the threats "very seriously," he says the rhetoric "is consistent with past behavior."
Last month, the Pentagon announced plans to increase by 2017 the number of Alaska-based missile interceptors designed to shoot down any prospective North Korean missile launch aimed at U.S. territory.
North Korea on Saturday said it was entering a "state of war" with South Korea in response to what it termed the "hostile" military drills being staged in the South. But there have been no signs of unusual activity in the North's military to suggest an imminent aggression, a South Korean defense ministry official said last week.
North Korea stepped up its rhetoric in early March, when U.S. and South Korean forces began annual military drills that involved the flights of U.S. B-2 stealth bombers in a practice run, prompting the North to put its missile units on standby to fire at U.S. military bases in the South and in the Pacific.
For its part, North Korea has cancelled an armistice agreement with the United States that ended the Korean War and cut all hotlines with U.S. forces, the United Nations, and South Korea.
The South has also changed its rules of engagement to allow local units to respond immediately to attacks, rather than waiting for permission from Seoul.
Stung by criticism that its response to the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 was tardy and weak, Seoul has also threatened to target North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and to destroy statues of the ruling Kim dynasty in the event of any new attack, a plan that has outraged Pyongyang.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said North Korea's announcement that it was in a state of war followed a "familiar pattern" of rhetoric.
China has repeatedly called for restraint on the peninsula.
However, many in South Korea have regarded the North's willingness to keep open the Kaesong industrial zone, located just a few miles north of the heavily-militarized border and operated jointly by both sides, as a sign that Pyongyang will not risk losing a lucrative source of foreign currency.
Closure could also trap hundreds of South Korean workers and managers of the more than 100 firms that have factories there.
Nonetheless the U.S. has a made a point of publicizing its own recent military moves, including the deployment of bombers and F-22 stealth fighters to South Korea as part of two-month-long military exercises.
A show of force by U.S. stealth jets over the Korean Peninsula after talk of war by Pyongyang has caused only minor concern in China, a measure of Beijing's belief that the North is to blame for the tensions and that hostilities are not imminent.
An online survey begun over the weekend by influential Chinese tabloid the Global Times found that more than 80 percent of respondents did not believe the current situation on the Korean Peninsula was serious.
"It's not the first time North Korea has used such strong language. They often say this. I think they are probably playing a game. It's to do with what sort of person Kim Jong Un is, and his young age," said Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor at the elite Peking University.
"I really don't think they will resort to using their weapons. The possibility is very small."
Retired Major General Luo Yuan, one of China's most outspoken military figures, expressed a degree of sympathy with North Korea in a blog last week, writing that the country was only trying to push the international community to properly guarantee its security and wanted normal ties with Washington.
War was unlikely, Luo added.
"Once the joint U.S.-South Korean exercises have finished and with birthday celebrations for (late founder of North Korea) Kim Il-sung imminent, the temperature will gradually cool and get back to the status quo of no war, no unification," he wrote.
Nevertheless, there has been some criticism in China directed at the United States.
One Chinese military expert, Li Jie, who works for a Chinese navy research institution, told the website of Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily that the B-2 sortie was actually aimed more at China that North Korea.
"The ultimate strategic aim is to contain and blockade China, to distract China's attention and slow its development. What the U.S. is most worried about is the further development of China's economy and military strength," Li said.
The opinion does not seem widely shared, though deciphering the perceptions of China's military top brass is usually difficult.
The People's Liberation Army has, instead of issuing any statements about the Korean peninsula, has in recent days focused its attention on new orders to restrict the use of military license plates on cars, part of a graft crackdown.
"The Chinese people know how to shadow box and know even better about Sun Zi's 'Art of War,' so it (the military) won't make public that which need not be known," the official China New Service said in a commentary about the Korean tensions.
Meanwhile, The Washington Free Beacon
reports that China has placed military forces on heightened alert in the northeast sector of the country.
U.S. officials also told the publication that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has stepped up military mobilization in the border region since mid March. This includes troop movements, warplane activity, and nearby live-fire naval exercises, according to the Beacon.
The Associated Press, Reuters, and AFP contributed to this article
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