Tensions Rise As U.S., South Korea Conduct Military Drills

North Korea has cut off a hotline with South Korea, as its southern neighbor begins a large annual military exercise with the U.S. North Korea also announced that the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War is no longer valid, though South Korean officials have cast doubt on this. This comes after a week of inflamed North Korean rhetoric, including threats to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the U.S.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

North and South Korea have tamped down tensions over the years with the help of a kind of red phone.

INSKEEP: Yeah, it's a measure of the heated rhetoric coming from the North that that phone now appears to be off.

MONTAGNE: It may not be the first time, but it is significant, as this comes with a cascade of menacing talk from North Korea, including threats to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S.

INSKEEP: And today here's something that is not likely to calm things down.

MONTAGNE: South Korea and the U.S. began their yearly joint military exercises.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: South Korean news is headlining Operation Key Resolve: war games involving 13,000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers. Every year it's a time of tension. But this year the North seems to be acting on its threats. A hotline between South and North rang unanswered today. And Pyongyang's state mouthpiece is warning the ceasefire that ended the Korean War is now invalid.

A South Korean official reportedly told parliament that unilateral cancellation isn't legally binding. Pyongyang's made that threat half-a-dozen times before. This time the context is different.

BRIAN MYERS: The rhetoric is really always bellicose. What we're hearing now is just a change of degree and not kind.

LIM: Brian Myers is an expert on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University in South Korea. He believes the new young leader, Kim Jong-un, is more military-focused than his father.

MYERS: The problem, of course, is the more Pyongyang threatens the United States and South Korea, the more it puts itself under pressure to do something. So I think it's very likely that North Korea will engage in some significant disruption of the peace this year, as it does every year.

LIM: So what does North Korea want? It wants a formal peace treaty with the U.S. and more. The most recent insight came from the only American who's spent substantial amounts of time with the North Korean leader.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: He's none other than the Worm, NBA star Dennis Rodman, who less than two weeks ago watched basketball in Pyongyang with his new best friend, Kim Jong-un.

DENNIS RODMAN: I just love him. I love - the guy's awesome.

LIM: Speaking to ABC's George Stephanopoulos, he relayed a message from the North Korean leader.

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RODMAN: He wants Obama to do one thing - call him.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He wants a call from President Obama?

RODMAN: That's right. He told me that. He said, if you can, Dennis, I don't want to do war.

LIM: But Kim's bellicosity is limiting the options for response, from the U.S. or anyone else.

South Korea's just inaugurated a new conservative president, Park Geun-hye; her cabinet meets for the very first time today. She campaigned on a platform of leaving the door open to dialogue with the North, but that position is no longer tenable.

Hahm Chai-bong, the president of the Asan Institute in Seoul, says North Korea's made that very clear.

HAHM CHAI-BONG: It has very quickly and very assuredly slapped President Park Geun-hye's outreached hand. So she is now in an impossible position. She is not able to reach out to the North Koreans anymore. As our spokesmen are telling us, that she is in an increasingly hard line mode when it comes to dealing with North Korea at this current stage.

LIM: On the streets of Seoul, nerves are being tested.

HAN PYEONG-SEOP: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Of course I'm scared, says Han Pyeong-seop, a 59-year-old taxi driver. North Korea's provocations get more fierce as time goes by. But others see the threat as more of the same.

SAM HUN LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Maybe I'm complacent, says 24-year-old Sang Hun lee, but I don't foresee war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: North Korea's traditional ally, China, is also undergoing a leadership transition. As its new leaders gather in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing seems to be recalibrating its position.

The Chinese supported tougher U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang after its third nuclear test. Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, has been in Beijing; he says Chinese officials are increasingly frustrated.

IAN BREMMER: The Chinese government has not yet developed working relations with Kim Jong-un. We've seen some reports from party officials in the international media talking about maybe China should cut off North Korea. I don't believe that that's intended for local Chinese consumption. I think it's because formal North Korean channels aren't working and they're trying to get the North Korea's attention. They're very unsettled.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Meanwhile, on North Korean television, the bombast continues, with footage of Kim Jong-un visiting the frontline army unit that shelled the South three years ago, killing four people. Now many observers are bracing themselves for the next North Korean provocation. The big question is just how serious will it be this time.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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