North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened to “wipe out” a South Korean island as Pyongyang came under new economic and diplomatic fire yesterday from US sanctions and UN charges of gross rights abuses.
Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen to their highest level for years, with the communist state under the youthful Kim threatening nuclear war in response to UN sanctions imposed after its third atomic test last month.
It has also announced its unilateral shredding of the 60-year-old Korean War armistice and non-aggression pacts with Seoul in protest at a joint South Korean-US military exercise that began on Monday.
While most of these statements have been dismissed as rhetorical bluster, the latest threat to Baengnyeong, which has about 5,000 residents, appears credible and carries the weight of precedent.
In 2010, the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan was sunk in the area of Baengnyeong with the loss of 46 lives and later that year North Korea shelled the nearby island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people.
On a visit on Monday to frontline artillery units, Kim Jong-un briefed officers on their mission “to strike and wipe out the enemies” on Baengnyeong and turn the island into a “sea of fire.”
“Once an order is issued, you should break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like,” Kim was quoted as saying by Korean Central News Agency.
An administrative official on Baengnyeong, Kim Young-gu, said emergency shelters on the island had been fully stocked and all village councils put on high alert.
“It’s not like there’s a mass exodus of panicked islanders to the mainland, but to be honest with you, we’re a bit scared,” he said by telephone.
The crisis represents an early test for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, while analysts worry about just how far Kim Jong-un is willing to go.
A political row has hindered appointments to the Cabinet and the nominee for the defense portfolio, Kim Byung-kwan, warned that delaying his confirmation posed enormous risks.
“I feel a tremendous sense of danger,” he told a televised press conference. “There should never be a slightest vacuum in national defense at any moment and now is a perilous time.”