On Saturday, a dour man in military uniform appeared on North Korean television, flanked by army flags, and read a statement saying the country was now on a war-footing. He said the North would take an “all-out confrontational posture” against its neighbour.
Although North Korea regularly issues threats against the South, a spokesman for the South Korea Unification ministry said it was the most serious threat since 1998.
The television broadcast accused the South of “opting for the road to confrontation with the help of outside powers, ignoring the call for conciliation and cooperation”.
Commentators noted that the broadcast was transmitted just a few days before the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. “North Korea wants to draw Obama’s attention,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
North Korea has repeatedly accused Lee Myung-Bak, the South Korean president, of being a “sycophant” to the United States.
In response to the threat, the South Korean armed forces have been told to “strengthen their alert status”. However, the South Koreans aid “no particular movements by the North Korean military have been detected.”
A spokesman for the South Korean military said: “Much of the comments are the usual rhetoric and arguments that have been issued previously. North Korea talks a lot but we will have few words and instead respond with action.”
North Korea imposed border restrictions with South Korea at the start of last month, accusing the government in Seoul of taking confrontation “beyond the danger level”.
Despite the impasse, Seoul’s deputy nuclear negotiator has been visiting the North since Thursday. The trip, the highest-level visit to the North in a year, was seen as an indication Pyongyang has not abandoned its nuclear disarmament pact.
Selig Harrison, a US weapons expert returning from talks in Pyongyang, said senior North Korean officials had told him that they have “weaponised” enough plutonium for four to five nuclear weapons. He said 30.8kg of plutonium listed as part of the preliminary disarmament deal had been incorporated into warheads, according to North Korea.