Statements of aggression from North Korea's young leader may be reaching a breaking point, following claims from the U.N. that he has "gone too far" and increased tension on city streets in Seoul, South Korea.
North Korea announced Tuesday it would reopen a production plant for nuclear material, following a string of moves that aggravated its neighbors and Western nations, including calls for shuttering the only remaining facility the two countries share.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, said Tuesday morning he is "deeply troubled" by the ongoing crisis on his home peninsula.
"As Secretary-General, it is my duty to prevent war and to pursue peace. It is also my responsibility to state that the current crisis has already gone too far," Ban said during a news conference in Andorra, according to a U.N. release. "Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability."
The only way to resolve the crisis is through increased dialogue, he said, made difficult by Kim Jong Un's insistence that the reclusive communist country would cut all lines of communications with its neighbor to the south.
Ban also voiced his concern for the potential of a military escalation should either side take direct action.
"There is no need for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to be on a collision course with the international community.
"I am convinced that nobody intends to attack DPRK because of disagreements about its political system or foreign policy. However, I am afraid that others will respond firmly to any direct military provocation." Seoul residents say recent demonstrations of force from the U.S. has proven its commitment to its allies, including South Korea and Japan, which could likely bear the brunt of initial attacks should North Korea choose to launch missiles. But tensions remain in the air of the capital city, less than 20 miles from the North Korea border.
"This is the tensest time I have experienced since moving to Seoul in 2005," says Josh Foreman, editor for English-language magazine Groove Korea. "I think a lot of people's anxiety is coming from the fact that Kim Jong Un is a new leader with an unproven track record. [South Korean President Park Geun-hye] is, too, though no one expects her to make any rash decisions."
"The young [Kim Jong Un] regime seems to make much fuss as his later father when Kim Jung Il took over," says Soo Ahn, a freelance producer in Seoul. "The young Kim is seeking recognition within north to stabilize his regime."
Via email, Ahn recounted to U.S. News a conversation she had with two college students on the Seoul subway, who said they see the current tensions as the North Korean regime testing the new South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. "It is difficult to understand why North Korea is doing such a political stunt," one of them said.
Seoul residents contacted by U.S. News generally agree that a ground war with the North is unlikely, but are anxious about a repeat of the shelling that has occurred as recently as 2010.
Foreman lives in the Haebangcheon neighborhood, which borders U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, the headquarters of the U.S. military presence. He is concerned that an inbound artillery would likely target that base.
"The thought of a nuclear strike against the city has probably crossed the minds of all Seoulites (it has mine), but I don't think anyone believes it is really possible," he says. "The feeling here is that even with rhetoric escalated to the current level, nuclear weapons will only be used as leverage by the North."
"Generally, for my surprise, people doesn't care that much about [Kim Jong Un's] threat," Shin Woong-Jae, a photojournalist, said via email. Most South Koreans don't think the North Korean leader has the "guts to push the button" but is rather playing a game to establish a reputation as a strong military leader, Shin added.
Foreman says he was reassured by the U.S. deployment of a Missouri-based B-2 Spirit Bomber that flew over South Korea March 28 and two F-22 Raptors that were moved to a South Korean base from Japan March 31.
"Photos of the B-2 bombers appeared on the front pages of newspapers here the day after they flew over. Many people I talked to were impressed that the planes flew here from Missouri, and not from some base in the Pacific," he says.
"The fact that the planes took off in the Midwest, flew all the way to the Korean peninsula, dropped fake bombs and then flew back sends a very clear message: We can reach you with no trouble, Foreman says. "You will not see us coming. Our planes are nuclear-capable. The flights were definitely meant to intimidate the North."
Shin says these missions were "nothing but a 'reply' from the U.S. to North Korea," adding that "we sense that tension is high this time."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday the Raptors are "on static display at Osan Air Base as part of the Foal Eagle exercise to provide bilateral training for the U.S. and ROK military and to provide South Korean senior leaders with an orientation to the aircraft, which are an advanced capability that is available for the defense of South Korea."