Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula with North Korea launching military and civilian drills, and threatening to nullify an armistice agreement that ended the Korean War decades ago.
The North Korean authorities have also clamped down overseas travel by both residents and officials, including to neighboring China, as the United Nations Security Council mulled new sanctions to punish Pyongyang for defiant nuclear and missile tests, according to sources.
Ten-day drills began at military units in North Korea on March 1— in an apparent response to war exercises between the U.S. and South Korea — and would be followed by a nationwide military exercise to be participated by bureaucrats and civilians for another 10 days, the sources told RFA's Korean Service.
“Tensions are high in North Korea as if there is a likely war to be triggered soon,” a source in North Pyongan province who recently visited China said.
“They have been prohibiting all kinds of activities for us to earn a living, including doing business at local markets. It’s screwed up,” the source said.
“Tensions that appeared to have eased after North Korea’s nuclear test on Feb. 12 resurfaced, and they are making both civilians and the military tired,” the source said.
Chinese traders along the border with North Korea, including in the biggest Chinese border city Dandong, said business activity had also diminished.
“Hotels and restaurants popular with North Koreans and traders who usually deal with North Koreans in the border city of Dandong have expected that many merchants from North Korea will come after the special celebration of [former leader] Kim Jong Il’s birthday on Feb. 16 but business is at a standstill,” a trader said.
Tickets for train services between Pyongyang and Chinese cities can now be purchased on the day of travel due to the lackluster activity along the border, he said.
Quoting military and government sources, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Wednesday that North Korea has started submarine drills and stepped up preparations for nationwide military exercises.
North Korea may also be preparing to test-fire short-to-medium-range missiles by banning flights and sailing off its coast, the agency said.
It noted that the latest moves followed the launching by the United States and South Korea of a two-month field training exercise called "Foal Eagle" last week.
Separately, the two allies will conduct computer-simulated drills code-named "Key Resolve" from March 11 to 21.
South Korea's Defense Ministry could not confirm the report about the prospective missiles' test but officials in Seoul have said Pyongyang is conducting military exercises that appear to be larger in scale than in previous years.
South Korea's military also warned Wednesday that it would strike back at North Korea and target its top leadership if Pyongyang launches any attacks on the South.
"We have all preparations in place for strong and decisive punishment, not only against the source of the aggression and its support forces but also the commanding element," Major General Kim Yong-hyun of the South Korean army told a news conference in one of the clearest threats Seoul has made, Reuters reported.
Japan's Kyodo news agency reported that some residents in North Korea's capital Pyongyang were covering up buses and other larger vehicles with camouflage nets in what it said was a possible preparation for war.
North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un ordered a missile test in December 2012 and a nuclear weapons test last month despite international warnings that they were illegal.
The U.N. Security Council is discussing a set of proposed sanctions to punish North Korea for the illicit tests.
The United States, China, and Russia have agreed on a draft resolution which "for the first time ever" will target the illicit activities of North Korea's diplomats, banking relationships, and illicit transfers of bulk cash, officials said on Tuesday.
Following the sanctions' threat, North Korea threatened to scrap an armistice that ended the 1950-53 civil war and also to sever a military "hotline" with the United States if Seoul and Washington pressed on with the two-month-long war games.
"We will completely nullify the Korean armistice" from March 11, when the South Korean-U.S. exercise gets into full swing in the South, the North's KCNA news agency said, quoting the Korean People's Army (KPA) Supreme Command spokesman.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.