The latest round of threats exchanged by North Korea and the United States is dragging on longer and taking on a more virulent tone than in the past, provoking deep concerns among American officials and their allies…

While a direct attack on U.S. forces on the mainland or in the Pacific seems unlikely, nongovernment analysts said the rising tensions increase the risk of some form of limited armed conflict. North Korea recently cut off its military phone line with the South, which is used to coordinate logistics along the demilitarized border buffer.

“The level and scope of the rhetoric [in North Korea] is stronger than in the past,” said Scott A. Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This time we’ve seen a higher level of threat, delivered at a higher level.”

He added, “There’s room for miscalculation right now.”

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This time around, foreign-policy watchers said, a confluence of circumstances have set the stage for Kim Jong Un’s provocations:

— Pyongyang is stewing over the U.N. Security Council, with the support of China, tightening sanctions after satellite and nuclear testing that suggested they could one day attack the U.S.

— There are new administrations in South Korea, China and Tokyo, and President Barack Obama is making second-term changes to his defense and national-security leadership, so the timing is right to test the waters.

— Kim Jong Un may need to consolidate his political power at home. A strong response by the U.S. or South Korea, such as this week’s B-2 bomber flyover, helps rally domestic support and distract from economic problems.

— North Korea’s last nuclear test showed progress. “You feel you can afford to threaten because you feel you have a deterrent,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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In fact, it is the abilities that Mr. Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago this week on the Cheonan, a naval corvette, that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North has never acknowledged involvement in either — though the South believes it was responsible for both and so do American experts.

“We’re convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military, who still don’t know him,” one senior administration official said Friday. He added, “We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.”…

“We’re all trying to put him on the couch,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “A year ago the U.S. and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him. But he has steadily reverted to form,” adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of an external threat to solidify support at home.

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So why worry? Two reasons. First, North Korea has a penchant for testing new South Korean presidents. A new one was just inaugurated in February, and since 1992, the North has welcomed these five new leaders by disturbing the peace. Whether in the form of missile launches, submarine incursions, or naval clashes, these North Korean provocations were met by each newly elected South Korean president with patience rather than pique.

The difference today is that South Korea is no longer turning the other cheek. After the North blew up the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors in 2010, Seoul re-wrote the rules of military engagement. It has lost patience and will respond kinetically to any provocation, which could escalate into a larger conflict. Second, North Korea crossed a major technology threshold in December, when it successfully launched a satellite into orbit. Though the satellite later malfunctioned, the North managed to put the payload into orbit with ballistic missile launch technology that is clearly designed to reach the United States…

But there’s another point that is often overlooked: North Korea today can threaten all of South Korea and parts of Japan with its conventional missiles and its conventional military. The North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict. Stability has held for 60 years because the U.S. security alliances with South Korea and Japan make it clear to the North Korean leadership that if they attacked South Korea or Japan, they would lose both the war and their country. And, for half a century, neither side believed that the benefits of starting a major war outweighed the costs. The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience.

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[O]n the streets of Seoul on Saturday, South Koreans said they were not worried about an attack from North Korea.

“From other countries’ point of view, it may seem like an extremely urgent situation,” said Kang Tae-hwan, a private tutor. “But South Koreans don’t seem to be that nervous because we’ve heard these threats from the North before.”

The Kaesong industrial park, which is run with North Korean labor and South Korean know-how, has been operating normally, despite Pyongyang shutting down a communications channel typically used to coordinate travel by South Korean workers to and from the park just across the border in North Korea. The rivals are now coordinating the travel indirectly, through an office at Kaesong that has outside lines to South Korea.

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Many in the South have regarded the North’s willingness to keep open the Kaesong industrial zone, located just a few miles (km) north of the border, as a sign that Pyongyang will not risk losing a lucrative source of foreign currency by mounting a real act of aggression.

The Kaesong zone is a vital source of hard currency for the impoverished state and hundreds of South Korean workers and vehicles enter daily after crossing the armed border.

“If the puppet traitor group continues to mention the Kaesong industrial zone is being kept operating and damages our dignity, it will be mercilessly shut off and shut down,” KCNA quoted an agency that operates Kaesong as saying in a statement.

The threat to shut it down could sharply escalate tensions because it would suspend a symbolic joint project run by the rivals.

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A senior North Korean official has assured Chinese tour operators that there will be no war on the Korean Peninsula. The assurance came at a time when the North is ratcheting up its belligerent rhetoric.

Visiting Xian in Shaanxi Province in mid-March, Kim To-jun of the North’s General Bureau of Tourism, told Chinese tour operators, “Don’t worry. There’ll be no war on the Korean Peninsula, so send as many tourists as possible.”…

A source speculated, “It seems that the North is trying to make money by assuring Chinese people that there is no danger of war, while the threats against South Korea are mostly for domestic political purposes.”

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Park may want peace, but if the North provokes again she would look intolerably weak if she did not authorise some sort of counter-strike.

The problem, of course, would be to keep that limited. One idea mooted would be to hit statues of the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, or their mausoleum. The symbolism would be potent. Even this might prompt the North to strike back.

More menacingly, Southern sources have told local media that their cruise missiles could fly in through a Pyongyang window and take out – well, anybody, know what I mean? That has put the wind up Kim Jong-un, and would be extremely high risk.

Almost 20 years ago the risks were quantified. In 1994, Bill Clinton seriously considered a strike on North Korea’s nuclear site at Yongbyon. The joint chiefs of staff estimated that a new war in Korea would kill at least 1 million people, including up to 100,000 Americans. Immediate costs to the US would be $100bn, while business disruption in the region would cost more than $1tn. Those financial figures would be multiples higher now.

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The rhetoric itself has not escalated significantly over last year. And it’s been almost 20 years since North Korea first talked of turning Seoul into a sea of fire. I get the feeling that North Korea’s long-range missile launch and the nuclear test have both lent a new force to the old rhetoric…

One of the few things that has restrained the North Koreans over the decades has been Pyongyang’s reluctance to alienate the South Korean left. I wonder now if, after two successive elections of the more hardline presidential candidate (the current president having been elected with an absolute majority of votes), the North may have given up on South Korean public opinion altogether.

The rapid aging of the South Korean electorate certainly does not bode well for the prospect of another “Sunshine Policy” in the near future. This may be one reason why the propaganda apparatus denigrated President Park as a “skirt” — a clear indication, by the way, that we are not dealing with a far-left regime up there but a far-right one. And I notice from the TV broadcasts that many of the people in the man-on-the-street interviews talk of how they would love to give the “sea of fire” treatment to Seoul and Washington almost as if they were the same enemy territory. If the regime has given up on winning over the South Korean electorate, things could get much more dangerous than they already are.

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And there is, of course, no easy solution. The United States and its allies are not going to initiate a war to eliminate these programs. But no evidence suggests that coercion leads North Korea to modify its behavior, and even stepped-up Chinese support for sanctions is unlikely to force positive changes in Pyongyang. Moreover, despite continuing speculation, there are few signs that the regime is headed toward collapse.

All this leaves the one approach that the Obama administration has adamantly resisted: engagement at the highest levels. It’s been reported that the White House secretly sent envoys to Pyongyang last year. But dialogue with mid-level diplomats contains a built-in obstacle to success, because in the North Korean system the top leader makes all the key decisions.

President Obama declared in his second inaugural address, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” Before things get even worse, it is time to try that approach with North Korea, by appointing a high-level envoy with the stature and credibility to ensure that he or she would be able to meet with Kim Jong Un to explore possibilities of reversing the recent downward spiral.

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A South Korean executive who employs 1,400 North Korean workers told the AP, a day after returning from the Kaesong plant for a visit, “Tension rises almost every year when it’s time for the U.S.-South Korean drills to take place, but as soon as those drills end, things quickly return to normal.” He added, “I think and hope that this time won’t be different.”

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