NK News reports:
North Korea is entering a “state of war” with South Korea, according to a statement made this morning by the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
Pyongyang’s latest warning pointed out that U.S. bases in Hawaii and Guam would be targeted in what could turn into “an all-out war, a nuclear war.”
“From this moment, the North-South relations will be put at the state of war, and all the issues arousing between the North and the South will be dealt with according to the wartime regulations,” North Korean state media outlet KCNA said today.
“If the U.S. and the South Korean puppet group perpetrate a military provocation for igniting a war against the DPRK (North Korea) in any area… it will not be limited to a local war but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war”. KCNA added that the “time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle”.
The BBC gives some context behind the latest escalation of rhetoric:
North Korea has threatened attacks almost daily since it was sanctioned for a third nuclear test in February.... The North carried out its third nuclear test on 12 February, which led to the imposition of fresh sanctions. The annual US-South Korean military exercises have also taken place, angering Pyongyang further....
North Korea has made multiple threats against both the US and South Korea in recent weeks, including warning of a "pre-emptive nuclear strike" on the US and the scrapping of the Korean War armistice.
On Thursday, North Korean state media reported leader Kim Jong-un "judged the time has come to settle accounts with the US imperialists".
While the rhetoric is inflammatory, North Korea has a long history of making these types of declarations when the international community starts to hold it to account, and it rarely leads to any serious action. Technically speaking, North Korea has been 'at war' with the South since 1953 as no peace treaty has ever been signed. The new declaration is almost certainly politically motivated, and isn't being treated by anyone as a serious progression towards an outright conflict. As the NK News report states:
Despite the increase in rhetoric, a military source told South Korean news agency Yonhap News that the Korean People’s Army was not currently showing signs of war preparations or unusual moves.....
Steve Chung, a Research Fellow at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said the “state of war” was merely a new deployment of old North Korean rhetoric.
“We have seen Pyongyang using similar verbal threats before. North Korea has routinely warned Seoul of things like a ‘Sea of Flames’, ‘Sacred War’, and even ‘Pre-Emptive Nuclear Strikes’. So while this is a revision of previous rhetoric, it may only have a limited effect.”
So why is North Korea doing this? Viewed through the prism of Machiavellian power politics, it's pretty straight forward. It is a deeply impoverished nation with an incredibly weak economy, and to maintain control over its starving citizens, the dictatorship keeps the country in a perpetual state of war. This means regular weapons testing and belligerent rhetoric that creates a lot of attention. North Korea understands that it would be completely suicidal to wage a real war with the US, so it uses inflammatory rhetoric to draw attention to itself on the world stage knowing that given its nuclear capabilities, the US won't attack it either. Thus North Korea forces a response from the international community and is able to portray itself (at least to its citizens) as a victim of international aggression.
While this is nothing particularly new, conflicts like this can spiral out of control quickly if they are not managed extremely carefully. As Dr John Swenson-Wright points out:
A more troubling possibility is that the North might choose - out of irritation with the UN - to precipitate a border clash with South Korea, either on land or sea, as it did before in 2010.
With US and South Korean forces primed to respond to any such action, there is a risk of limited conflict escalating rapidly into something far more uncontrollable and potentially destructive.
It's too early to tell how serious the latest crisis will turn out to be, but given North Korea has nuclear weapons, there's always a reason to be worried.