SEOUL, South Korea -- The South Korean military warned on Wednesday that if it is provoked by North Korea, it will strike the North's "command leadership," escalating a war of words and hinting at an attack on a North Korean headquarters.
The day before, the North Korean People's Army threatened to attack the United States and its South Korean ally with "lighter and smaller nukes," apparently in reaction to the United Nations Security Council's consideration of tougher new sanctions against the North over the nuclear test it conducted in February.
Bellicose statements from North Korea are nothing new, but their tone has grown bolder recently after apparently successful recent tests of a long-range rocket and a nuclear device, and especially in the last week, as the United States and South Korea began their annual joint military exercises.
South Korea usually does not respond to North Korean tongue-lashings, but it did on Wednesday, dismissing the North's threat as mere propaganda. Still, with officials and analysts here worried that North Korea might provoke a deadly skirmish sometime soon, to shake the new government of President Park Geun-hye in the South and to destabilize the region, the South Korean military called a news conference on Wednesday to deliver a categorical public warning. .
"If North Korea attempts a provocation that threatens the lives and security of our people, our military will forcefully and decisively strike not only the origin of provocation and its supporting forces but also its command leadership," Maj. Gen. Kim Yong-hyun, chief operations officer at the military's Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We make it clear that we are all prepared."
The two Koreas' front-line units exchanged artillery fire in 2010 after North Korea shelled a South Korean-controlled island; that same year, a South Korean navy corvette was sunk and 46 sailors killed by an explosion that the South blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. South Korea has since vowed to strike back with a deadlier force if North Korea provokes again.
Despite such warnings, however, officials worry that the North's young leader, Kim Jong-un, or ambitious generals under him, might be thinking that possessing nuclear weapons will allow them to provoke the South with impunity.
"We read their confidence in nuclear weapons behind their aggressive, more provocative rhetoric and actions recently," said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. "There is a higher possibility of North Korea attempting a provocation, something that would involve limited causalities but have all the impact that one expects from an armed provocation."
Correction: March 6, 2013, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the possible targets suggested in a warning by the South Korean military that, if provoked, it would attack the North's "command leadership." The statement was not meant to include the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un among the possible targets.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.