Image: South Korean and US joint military exercises at Mugeon-ri drill field on Paju
Jeon Heon-Kyun  /  EPA
South Korean military vehicles on patrol during South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle on Gyeonggi-do, South Korea on Monday.
By Donald Kirk Correspondent
Christian Science Monitor
updated 2/27/2012 5:58:38 PM ET 2012-02-27T22:58:38

Thousands of South Korean and U.S. troops opened annual war games today against the background of strident rhetoric from North Korea.

The verbal blasts from Pyongyang appeared considerably more inflammatory than usual, raising searching questions as to the nature and intentions of a regime now ostensibly led by the untested third-generation heir to the North's ruling dynasty.

U.S. and Korean analysts worry about the meaning of the threats from North Korea as the country’s youthful new leader Kim Jong Un asserts his authority in increasingly strong terms. The critical question is whether the rhetoric is just a somewhat louder version of the denunciations regularly fired by North Korea during war games before the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il in December.

"We don't know if Kim Jong Un plays by the same playbook or by something wholly different given his lack of experience and the need to legitimize himself as a 'strong' leader," says Victor Cha, who directed Asian affairs for the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Cha says he's watching "with greater apprehension any negative rhetoric coming out of the North. Before, we could chalk it up to typical North Korean tactics."

'Ready to fight'
Tensions escalated Monday as thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops opened two weeks of war games. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency declared its forces "ready to fight a war" in which "the war mongers will meet destruction."

N.Korea says Kim Jong Un spearheaded past nuke testing

Kim Jong Un, in the role of "supreme commander" that he has had since his father died in December, vowed "powerful retaliatory strikes" if U.S. and South Korean troops enter North Korean waters.

Mr. Kim made the threat in a visit to a military unit by the Yellow Sea last weekend, evoking memories of the artillery barrage on nearby Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 in which two South Korean marines and two civilians died. North Korea accused the South Koreans, who were conducting military exercises at the time, of opening fire on their territory.

By staging the current exercises, said the Korean Central News Agency, U.S. and South Korean forces were "guilty of unpardonable infringement upon the sovereignty of North Korea."

The U.S. command has been careful to stress the harmless nature of the exercises in which as many as 200,000 South Korean troops and several thousand Americans conduct exercises more often than not on computers. The command said the exercises -– called Key Resolve -– were "entirely non-provocative in nature."

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North Korea fired its loudest rhetorical barrages after two days of talks in Beijing last week between the new U.S. envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, and the veteran North Korean negotiator Kim Kye Gwan. Mr. Davies, stopping here on the weekend, said the talks were "serious" and "substantive" and had made "a little progress" but did not go into details.

Hot-and-cold rhetoric
A spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry, explaining the hot-and-cold nature of its rhetoric, said Monday the North was "fully ready for dialogue and war" -– an ambivalent remark that suggested uncertainty among North Korean leaders.

It was North Korea, not the United States, that requested the talks, apparently to see about getting direly needed food aid, but North Korean rhetoric indicated the North was not about to yield to demands for signs of giving up its nuclear program. Instead, on Saturday, the North put out a reminder of the danger posed by long-range missiles capable of carrying warheads with a statement to the effect that "the U.S. is sadly mistaken if it thinks it is safe as its mainland is far across the ocean."

Scott Snyder, director of U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, assumes "the two sides failed to come to terms" in the Beijing talks but holds out hopes for eventually returning to six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in 2008. The question, he says, is whether "something different has developed in North Korea’s leadership transition" -– possibly pressure to show military strength.

Kim Jong Un's ascension offers window to ease North-South tensions

"North Korean rhetoric has always been way over the top," says David Straub, former Korea desk officer at the State Department. "Recently, however, the tone and the threats seem, if anything, even more menacing."

In view of North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and "uncertainties surrounding the new leadership," says Straub, associate director of Korea studies at Stanford, the U.S. and South Korea "need to be even more militarily vigilant than usual." At the same time, he cautions, "they need to take care not to gratuitously offend or give excuses to North Korea by word or by deed."

Martial arts display
Against the backdrop of strident rhetoric from the North, the agency responsible for the president’s security put on the display of defensive expertise Monday. Martial arts experts battered one another, armored black limousines roared and screeched, and explosions crackled on cue in front of the Blue House, the office and residential complex of South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak.

"We are well prepared to deal with any provocation. We are watching very seriously," says Eo Cheong-soo, chief of the presidential security service, as he watched his men.

Also in attendance was South Korean Lt. Gen. Shin Hyun-don, who said he was not worried. There was "no sign of North Korean troop movements," he says. "There’s always more of a threat. We go on preparing more defense."

© 2012 Christian Science Monitor

Photos: Journey into North Korea

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  1. Central Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, is seen at dusk on April 12, 2011. North Korea is struggling with financial sanctions and international ostracization over its nuclear program. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A city tram carries passengers in Pyongyang on April 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl plays the piano inside the Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Stuffed animals are on display at Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang on March 9. They're used in biology classes. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Men read a newspaper on public display inside a subway station in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A North Korean traffic police officer stands along a street in central Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Workers carry painted doors along a road in Mangyongdae on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The scene on April 17 south of Pyongyang along the highway leading to the southern city of Kaesong, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. People pay their respects at a monument to Kim Il Sung at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang on April 14 -- the eve of the late president's birthday. In North Korea, April 15 is known as "The Day of the Sun" in honor of the former guerrilla fighter who founded North Korea in 1948. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A member of a marching band has her photo taken with a woman and a boy at an event marking the birthday of Kim Il Sung at a park in Pyongyang on April 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Women perform a dance routine with badminton rackets at an April 15 event to mark the birthday of Kim Il Sung at a park in Pyongyang. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Two female North Korean soldiers hold hands as they tour the birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A photo taken through a bus window shows a North Korean traffic police woman standing along a street in Pyongyang on April 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A statue known as the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, which symbolizes the hope for eventual reunification of the two Koreas, arches over a highway at the edge of Pyongyang on April 18. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Men walk along a street in Pyongyang as the sun sets April 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A decorated sheet covers a bed inside the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang on March 8. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A photograph of Kim Il Sung hangs on a wall next to a light made from a grenade casing on March 9 inside an exhibit at the war museum in Pyongyang. The exhibit is made to look like underground bunkers used during the resistance against the Japanese occupation. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People react on a ride at an amusement park in Pyongyang on April 16. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A multi-lane highway is empty of vehicles on April 21 near Pyongyang. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. People walk and use bicycles to cross a railroad bridge over a riverbed north of Pyongyang on April 19. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Concert-goers sit inside an auditorium as they wait for a classical music performance to begin in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A car drives along a street at night in central Pyongyang on April 12. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Children look through a subway car window in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A woman sits at a small table selling snacks on the roadside near Nampho on April 21. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Plates of food sit on a customer's table at a fast food restaurant inside an amusement park in Pyongyang on April 16. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Men operate a manual rail car on tracks running along the sea near Nampho on April 21. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Men ride bicycles at the end of a work day in Pyongyang on April 18. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Flowers known in North Korea as "Kimilsungia" are displayed next to a small replica of the Kim Il Sung mausoleum at a flower exhibition in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A woman looks at monkeys behind a glass enclosure at the central zoo in Pyongyang on April 22. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A European tourist photographs a North Korean woman working at the Pyongyang airport as a North Korean Air Koryo flight arrives from Beijing on April 12. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A children's choir performs in Pyongyang on April 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Hikers climb a trail along Mount Myohyang on April 20. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Hikers rest at a small pagoda along a trail on Mount Myohyang on April 20. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. North Korean flight attendants on a video screen bow at the end of the security demonstration before takeoff on an Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang on March 8. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rows of portable stereos sit on desks inside a music library room at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A professional photographer takes a souvenir picture for visitors to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Two North Korean soldiers walk along a road and past a small village near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas outside of Kaesong, North Korea, on April 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A guard is reflected in a window at the entrance to a hall where organizers held an exhibition of the flowers known in North Korea as "Kimjongilia" and "Kimilsungia" in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A shadow of the 560-foot-tall Juche Tower is cast over the Taedong River in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. People stroll along the Taedong River in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A waitress is reflected in a mirror inside a hotel restaurant in Mount Myohyang on April 19. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A bowl of traditional North Korean cold noodles, known as naengmyeon, sits on a restaurant table in Pyongyang on March 10. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. North Korean workers rebuild the roof of a structure at the Pohyon Temple at the foot of Mount Myohyang on April 19. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. On April 21, a girl carries a flower through a memorial cemetery in Pyongyang for men and women who died fighting against the Japanese occupation. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. An illustration of a building hangs in front of the construction project in progress in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Families have their photographs taken in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang on April 15. The palace, which was the official residence of Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994, is now a mausoleum where his embalmed body lies in state. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. A video shows the liftoff of the North Korean Unha-2 rocket to launch the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into space on a screen inside a hall at the Three Revolution Exhibition in Pyongyang. North Korea called the launch, which took place on April 5, 2009, a successful bid to put a communications satellite into space. However, the U.S. and South Korea called it cover for a test of long-range missile technology and accused Pyongyang of violating U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile technologies. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A U.S. flag and weapons sit inside a glass display case at the war museum in Pyongyang on March 9. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Two North Korean soldiers smoke cigarettes as a pedestrian passes in Pyongyang on April 22. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. A shadow is cast across a parking lot as a man walks by a row of imported cars in central Pyongyang on April 12. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Students swim and play on a water slide at a pool facility at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang on April 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. A girl stands on floral-print carpet inside the Pyongyang Children's Palace in Pyongyang on April 14. The large facility is used for teaching performance arts, fine arts and sports as extracurricular classes. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Meet North Korea’s first family

The North Korean dictatorship established by Kim Il Sung after World War II was taken over by his son Kim Jong Il in the 1990s. Now, as Kim Jong Il’s health fails the power is apparently being formally handed to his eldest son Kim Jung Un. In addition, the Kim family holds dozens of powerful positions throughout the North Korean bureaucracy.

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