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By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, March 28 (Yonhap) -- As North Korea issues bellicose rhetoric almost every day, coupled with obstructionist steps like the severing of the inter-Korean military hotline, the main question is whether and when the erratic nation will launch attacks on South Korea and the United States.
Around 7,000 miles away from Seoul, Korea experts in Washington also sense high tensions on the peninsula. They agree North Korea's provocations are possible anytime but admit the difficulty of predicting what will happen.
"Discerning bluster from actual North Korean intent is always difficult, but recent actions suggests greater potential for another attack on South Korean military and civilian targets," said Bruce Klingner, senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.
Pyongyang's military threats in recent weeks are strong and worrisome even by the standards of the communist regime's typical propaganda tactics.
Angry about new U.N. sanctions and South Korea-U.S. military exercises, the North has threatened to stage nuclear warfare, reduce South Korea to ashes and lob rockets onto Guam, Hawaii and the mainland U.S.
Klingner, who long worked in the U.S. intelligence community, raised the possibility of "miscalculation" by the North's young and inexperienced leader, Kim Jong-un, perhaps emboldened by a successful long-range rocket launch in December and a nuclear test two months later.
"As frightening as these warnings are, North Korea would more likely conduct another tactical-level attack to achieve its objectives rather than risk national suicide through a nuclear strike," he added.
In 2010, the North torpedoed a South Korean naval ship and carried out a massive artillery attack on a border island, killing a total of 50 South Korean soldiers and civilians.
But Larry Niksch, who has long followed Korean affairs, said noise from Pyongyang does not necessarily mean imminent military provocations.
"In the past, North Korea has struck against the U.S. and the ROK (South Korea) during periods of relatively calm with little or no prior warnings," said Niksch, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "In that situation -- periods of relative calm, North Korea has had the element of surprise when our guard was relaxed. I will worry more when North Korea calms the rhetoric."
Denny Roy, senior research fellow at the East-West Center, agreed that Pyongyang may be more cautious, especially as Seoul has stated plans to retaliate militarily to any future attack.
Currently, tens of thousands of South Korean and U.S. troops are staging annual joint military drills code-named Foal Eagle.
"If Pyongyang is more cautious, they might choose a more indirect type of provocation, something less lethal, or that is not clearly attributable to the DPRK (North Korean) government," he said.
A high-level government source here said there are no concrete indications of North Korea's actual provocations as yet.
The source, who requested anonymity, would not rule out the possibility that the North will refrain from taking additional provocative steps and create a mood for dialogue.
"I think we will have to wait until the end of the ongoing South Korea-U.S. military exercise on April 30 to get a better sense of whether the military tensions will be prolonged or talks will be able to resume," the source said.
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