SEOUL, South Korea — If North Korea decides to back up its words with action, what could it really do?
Most experts agree a full-blown war or a nuclear attack on the peninsula is off the cards. But the two Koreas have dialed up the rhetoric over the past week, raising fears that Pyongyang could launch a quick but containable provocation against the South in the coming months.
Last week, the North threatened to exercise what it called a “right” to a preemptive nuclear attack in response to the United Nations’ decision to expand economic sanctions.
The situation could worsen following the US State Department’s announcement Tuesday that it will expand its own restrictions on four North Korean officials and the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea.
But on Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a more specific, credible threat at the West Sea, also known as the Yellow Sea. It’s a disputed frontier off the west coast of the peninsula, now occupied by the South.
The Supreme Leader proclaimed to artillery troops stationed near the coast that "war can break out right now,” state media reported. He told the military to make preparations to turn Baengnyeong, an island that is home to 5,000 residents, into “a sea of flames.”
Usually, Korea watchers would overlook the remarks as prosaic chatter from a regime that’s big on talk. But there’s cause for worry this time: since the mid-1990s, North Korea has occasionally followed through when it comes to the West Sea.
“The West Sea is always convenient for provoking South Korea,” said Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea.
“The point is to keep the money coming from the South by threatening it,” he added, referring to South Korean aid.
A military skirmish could come “before the end of the year,” he said. “It’ll be something minimal, something containable, because they cannot make a surprise attack and then win a full-scale war.”
Officials at the South Korean Defense Ministry, however, said Tuesday they did not believe North Korea would follow through on its threats.
But Pyongyang has set a precedent. It launched two confrontations in the West Sea in 2010 — at one point bringing Seoul to consider staging retaliatory air strikes, former President Lee Myung-bak admitted in a newspaper interview last month.