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US strategy takes the Korean crisis into whole new territory

SEOUL -- Soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula have seen dire North Korean threats met with an unusually assertive U.S. response that analysts warn could take a familiar game into dangerous territory.

By publicly highlighting its recent deployment of nuclear-capable B-52 and stealth bombers over South Korea, Washington has, at times, almost appeared to be purposefully goading an already apoplectic Pyongyang.

“There certainly seems to be an element of 'let's show we're taking the gloves off this time' about the U.S. stance,” said Paul Carroll, program director at the Ploughshares Fund, a U.S.-based security policy think-tank.

And the North has responded in kind, declaring on Saturday that it was now in a “state of war” with South Korea.

Security crises on the Korean Peninsula have come and gone over the decades and have tended to follow a similar pattern of white-knuckle brinkmanship that threatens but finally pulls back from catastrophic conflict.

North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il were both considered skilled practitioners of this high-stakes game of who-blinks-first diplomacy.

And they ensured Pyongyang had enough form to lend its threats credibility, having engineered provocations that ranged from blowing up a South Korean civilian airliner in 1987 to shelling a South Korean island in 2010.

The current crisis, with Pyongyang lashing out at a combination of U.N. sanctions and South Korea-U.S. military exercises, diverges from precedent in terms of the context and the main characters involved.

It follows the two landmark events that triggered the U.N. sanctions and re-drew the strategic balance on the peninsula: The North's successful long-range rocket launch in December and its third — and largest — nuclear test in February.

Both may have emboldened North Korea to overplay its hand, while at the same time prompting Washington to decide there was already too much at stake to consider folding.

“Rhetorical salvoes are one thing, while rocket launches and nuclear tests are quite another,” said Carroll.

In addition, both North and South Korea have new, untested leaders with a strong domestic motivation to prove their mettle in any showdown.

Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, believes the danger of “miscalculation” is especially high from North Korea's young supremo Kim Jong Un.

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