But despite the escalating tensions, U.S. officials said they have focused more closely on what North Korea is doing than on what it is saying.
“Putting on a show is not the same as taking action,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the volatile situation. “Describing the situation as akin to war is not to be remotely confused with wanting a war, let alone going to war.”
The senior official and others said that U.S. military commanders are closely watching the situation, which has escalated since North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test in December. In addition, officials cited new levels of cooperation and mutual confidence between the United States and allies in South Korea and Japan.
While a direct attack on U.S. forces on the mainland or in the Pacific seems unlikely, nongovernment analysts said the rising tensions increase the risk of some form of limited armed conflict. North Korea recently cut off its military phone line with the South, which is used to coordinate logistics along the demilitarized border buffer.
In a new escalation of rhetoric early Saturday, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported that the country was entering a “state of war” with South Korea and that “all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly.”
Some experts noted that South Korea also has adopted a more aggressive rhetorical posture. Senior officials quoted anonymously in the media have suggested that plans have been drawn up for “surgical strikes” against North Korea.
“The level and scope of the rhetoric [in North Korea] is stronger than in the past,” said Scott A. Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This time we’ve seen a higher level of threat, delivered at a higher level.”
He added, “There’s room for miscalculation right now.”
Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced it was significantly bolstering America’s missile defense capabilities on the West Coast. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Thursday that the United States has no option but to take Pyongyang’s threats seriously.
But the decision to include B-2 bombers flown from Missouri in the military exercise with South Korea was made some time ago, the senior official said, adding that U.S. “strategic air assets” would be a part of the annual exercise “from this point forward.”
“It’s not something that just came up last week” in response to Kim’s verbal and video threats, the official said. “But it is certainly the case that following North Korea’s decision in December to conduct a nuclear test . . . both the United States and our allies recognized the need to ensure that there were consequences and that our deterrence was visible.”