As the Lunar New Year and annual U.S.-South Korea war games approach, North Korea's erratic leader has issued both an appeal for a moratorium on "slander" between the Korean governments and a warning that the military exercises could provoke "unimaginable holocaust."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year threatened to wage nuclear war against the South and its U.S. backers over the exercises, sharpening tensions in the region with a declaration that Pyongyang was no longer bound by the 60-year-old truce that ended fighting in the Korean War.
Though Kim's government never followed through on its threats to target the U.S. mainland with nuclear missiles, Washington and its East Asian allies remain concerned and vigilant regarding North Korea. Kim's government has carried out prohibited nuclear tests and missile launches in his two years as leader, and the 31-year-old had his uncle and reputed No. 2 official in the ruling hierarchy, Jang Song Taek, executed last month, allegedly for plotting to overthrow the government.
Kim also ordered and oversaw the execution of dozens of North Koreans last summer and fall, including a former girlfriend. At least 80 were put before public firing squads in November for crimes as minor as watching South Korean videos, or being in possession of a Bible, Seoul media and intelligence officials reported.
A statement Wednesday from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, issued through the North's official Korean Central News Agency, said Seoul was undermining peace on the peninsula.
"Powder-reeking war exercises are being waged, vitiating the hope-filled atmosphere at the beginning of the new year," the Pyongyang statement said.
"We sternly warn the U.S. and the South Korean authorities to stop the dangerous military exercises which may push the situation on the peninsula and the north-south ties to a catastrophe," KCNA quoted the reunification committee spokesman as saying.
Defying the North's warning would plunge inter-Korean ties "into a deadlock and unimaginable holocaust," the report concluded.
A later KCNA dispatch, though, sounded more conciliatory, with Kim quoted as calling for a holiday cease-fire in the war of words that keeps North and South Koreans divided and wary.
"We propose formally to the authorities of the South that on the occasion of the Lunar New Year holiday beginning on January 30, both sides take substantive steps of halting actions that provoke and criticize the other," said the statement from the National Defense Commission, which Kim chairs.
The South Korean Defense Ministry warned that Seoul was prepared to counter any military action unleashed by Pyongyang as the military exercises dubbed Key Resolve and Foal Eagle get underway next month.
"We will sternly retaliate against North Korea if the North carries out military provocations," Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters Thursday, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye had called on the North to allow a resumption of family reunification visits around the Lunar New Year on Jan. 31. But Pyongyang has rejected the proposal, citing the looming war games as an obstacle to the reunions.