How Serious Is the Bombast from North Korea?

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North Korea issued more heated rhetoric denouncing the annual US- South Korea military drills that started today.

Thousands of South Korean and US 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.

US 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 Mr. 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.

Dr. 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 US 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."

Kim Jong-un, in the role of "supreme commander" that he has had since his father died in December, vowed "powerful retaliatory strikes" if US 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, US and South Korean forces were "guilty of unpardonable infringement upon the sovereignty of North Korea."

The US 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."

North Korea fired its loudest rhetorical barrages after two days of talks in Beijing last week between the new US envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, and the veteran North Korean negotiator Kim Kye- gwan. …