SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea issued its latest belligerent threat Saturday, saying it has entered "a state of war" with South Korea a day after its young leader threatened the United States because two American B-2 bombers flew a training mission in South Korea.
Analysts say a full-scale conflict is extremely unlikely and North Korea's threats are instead aimed at drawing Washington into talks that could result in aid and boosting leader Kim Jong Un's image at home. But the harsh rhetoric from North Korea and rising animosity from the rivals that have followed U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's Feb. 12 nuclear test have raised worries of a misjudgment leading to a clash.
In a joint statement by the government, political parties and organizations, North Korea said Saturday that it will deal with all matters involving South Korea according to "wartime regulations." It also warned it will retaliate against any provocations by the United States and South Korea without "any prior notice."
The divided Korean Peninsula is already in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. But Pyongyang said it was scrapping the war armistice earlier this month.
South Korea's Unification Ministry quickly released a statement calling the latest threat not new and saying it is a follow-up to Mr. Kim's earlier order to put troops on a high alert in response to annual U.S.-South Korean defense drills. Pyongyang sees those drills as rehearsals for an invasion.
In an indication North Korea is not immediately considering starting a war, officials in Seoul said South Korean workers continued Saturday to cross the border to their jobs at a joint factory park in North Korea that's funded by South Koreans.
On Friday, Mr. Kim warned that his forces were ready "to settle accounts with the U.S." after two nuclear-capable U.S. B-2 bombers dropped dummy munitions on a South Korean island range as part of joint drills and returned to its base in Missouri.
North Korean state media later released a photo of Mr. Kim and his senior generals huddled in front of a map showing routes for envisioned strikes against cities on both American coasts. The map bore the title "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan."
At the main square Friday in Pyongyang, tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for a 90-minute mass rally in support of Mr. Kim's call to arms. Small North Korean warships, including patrol boats, conducted maritime drills off both coasts of North Korea near the border with South Korea earlier this week, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. He didn't provide details.
The spokesman said that South Korea's military was mindful of the possibility that North Korean drills could lead to an actual provocation. He said that the South Korean and U.S. militaries are watching closely for any signs of missile launch preparations in North Korea. He didn't elaborate.
Experts believe North Korea is years away from developing nuclear-tipped missiles that could strike the United States. Many say they've also seen no evidence that Pyongyang has long-range missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland.
On top of that, most countries on the verge of a major military assault do not broadcast their battle plans to the world.
"You would expect such a military order to be issued in secret," Mr. Min-seok said. "We believe that by revealing it to the media and publicizing it to the world, North Korea is playing psychology."
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 U.S. 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. "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."
Still, there are fears of a localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999. There's also danger that such a clash could escalate. Seoul has vowed to hit back hard the next time it is attacked.
"The first strike of the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK will blow up the U.S. bases for aggression in its mainland and in the Pacific operational theatres including Hawaii and Guam," the North said Saturday in the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
According to the view that North Korea's propaganda machine pounds into its citizens' minds, the North is a tiny nation besieged by hostile outside forces, one that survived despite decades of sanctions and can finally stand up to both its U.S. foe and its longtime Chinese ally -- all thanks to the strong "military-first" leadership of the Kim family and the country's nuclear arsenal.
This article includes information from Choe Sang-Hun and David E. Sanger of The New York Times. First Published March 30, 2013 4:00 AM