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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)
North Korea Threatens to Strike South Korea 'Without Warning'
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has threatened to strike South Korea "without any notice" in anger over local conservative groups' recent rallies in Seoul "insulting the dignity of the supreme leadership of North Korea."
The North's powerful National Defense Commission, headed by leader Kim Jong-un, sent the threatening message to South Korea's National Security Council through the western coastal military hotline, the defense ministry in Seoul said Dec. 20.
The latest threat came after several conservative groups and North Korean defectors on Dec. 17 held rallies in Seoul to protest against North Korea's authoritarian rule and human rights abuse on the second death anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader.
During the rallies held in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, the conservative groups burned effigies of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. They also called Kim Jong-un "the world's devil" for executing his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and threatening the South.
The North Korean military condemned the rallies, saying they insulted North Korea's "highest dignity," and vowed to "ruthlessly retaliate" against the South.
The South Korean defense ministry immediately replied through the military line, vowing to "sternly react" to any provocations, ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.
"We are closely monitoring the North Korean military's move, preparing to sternly react to any provocations," Kim said, noting the North has not shown unusual movement so far while carrying out its routine winter drills since early December.
North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric, regularly threatening strikes against South Korea and the United States, often in response to their joint drills particularly in spring.
It was but the latest threatening message from the North. The most recent came in November when the South was preparing a live-fire military drill near the western sea border at the time of the third anniversary of the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. "If a single shot falls in the North's territory, the South will be turned into a sea of fire," Pyongyang thundered at the time.
The North also demanded an apology from the South Korean government in April when some conservative groups burned an effigy bearing Kim Jong-un's photo at a rally.
Seoul worries that Pyongyang might actually follow through on its threat this time in order to distract its people from the bloody purge of Jang.
The uncle of Kim Jong-un, who was considered the second-most powerful man in the country, was executed on Dec. 12 after he was convicted of treason and luxurious living by a special military tribunal.
Since then, the South's military has heightened its watch on the North in cooperation with U.S. intelligence authorities.
The North has bristled at any outside criticism of its leader and has made similar verbal threats against the South in recent years, although no actual attack has occurred since late 2010.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said recently the socialist state may launch provocations between late January and early March as hardliners may try to demonstrate their loyalty amid growing instability, ordering tight security posture for his military.
The South Korean capital city of Seoul, with more than 10 million people, is within the range of North Korea's conventional artillery positioned along the heavily fortified border.
Pyongyang severed the communication line in March amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the North's third nuclear test and its near-daily war threats. The two Koreas restored the western coastal hotline in September after they agreed to resume their joint industrial park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.
Following the shocking execution of North Korea's unofficial No. 2, South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered officials to study ways to revive the secretariat of the National Security Council to cope with the changing security situations on the peninsula.
On Dec. 20, South Korea's top point man on North Korea urged Pyongyang to stop its provocative threats against Seoul and called for cooperation to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
"North Korea should take the attitude to resolve inter-Korean issues in a step by step manner through dialogue," Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said in a forum at the National Assembly.
"In that case, we will play an active role" in easing the dire economic situation in North Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Ryoo said South Korea is bracing for all possibilities, noting the bloody purge has heightened uncertainty in the isolated country.
Seoul has repeatedly vowed to retaliate against any provocations to avenge the deaths of 50 South Koreans who were killed in North Korea's two separate attacks in March and November of 2010.
Meanwhile, North Korean state media called Kim the "great leader" as its people pledged loyalty to him in the latest event appeared to have been orchestrated by the North to strengthen Kim's monolithic leadership.
The North's main newspaper Rodong Sinmun used the honorific epithet for Kim in a report published Friday.
It marked the first time that the North's official media used the appellation "great leader," a title that was reserved only for Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011.
More North Koreans have said they will faithfully "follow the ideology and leadership of the Marshal of Paektu bloodline," in a series of allegiance letters addressed to the leader, according to a Friday radio broadcast monitored in Seoul.
Kim was named marshal, the North Korean military's highest rank, last year as he has been consolidating his grip on power that he assumed in 2011 following the demise of his father.
North Korea has said Kim carries the country's royal bloodline, called the Mount Paektu, or Baekdu, bloodline.
The North claims the mountain, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula and located on the Sino-North Korean border, is the sacred birthplace of Kim Jong-il, though historians and foreign officials have said he was born in Russia.
In Beijing on Dec. 20, China called for calm and restraint after North Korea warned of a "merciless" strike against South Korea in anger over a rally against Kim Jong-un in Seoul.
"China opposes any acts that will undermine peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing, when asked about the North's warning.
"We hope that relevant parties will stay calm, exercise restraint and refrain from any words and deeds that will increase tension on the Korean Peninsula," Hua said.
U.S. officials also warned against any North Korean provocations, saying Kim Jong-un's execution of his uncle is an example of the worrisome unpredictability of the regime and could be a prelude to some kind of provocation by Pyongyang.
"These kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation to distract attention from what they're doing inside of that country," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Defense Department news conference.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that uncertainty about North Korea's motives is "concerning to everyone." "That nation is as closed as any nation in the world. There is no transparency," Hagel said. "And so when you see things like this occur, it heightens the reaction of what people think ... could happen, with that kind of unpredictability."
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