North Korea has announced that it has entered a "state of war" with the South. It comes amid increasing threats issued by Pyongyang against the United States and South Korea following tough international sanctions.
"As of now, inter-Korea relations enter a state of war and all matters between the two Koreas will be handled according to wartime protocol," the North's official KCNA news agency said in a statement released on Saturday.
"The long-standing situation of the Korean peninsula being neither at peace nor at war is finally over," KCNA added. It attributed the statement to all government bodies and institutions.
Despite Saturday's latest escalation in rhetoric, few commentators believe the north would be prepared to initiate a physical battle.
Shortly after the announcement, South Korea issued a statement downplaying its concerns. "This is not really a new threat, just part of a series of provocative threats," the South's Unification Ministry said in a statement.
The neighbors have technically been at war since 1953, when the Korean War concluded with a ceasefire rather than the formal signing of a peace treaty.
The situation has escalated in recent weeks, however, in the aftermath of fresh sanctions against North Korea. They were issued by the United Nations after Pyongyang conducted a banned nuclear test on February 12.
Joint South Korea-US military drills conducted this month further incensed the north , prompting the government to announce it had voided the armistice with the south.
US 'ready to respond'
The United States has maintained an assertive stance in the developing conflict, deploying two nuclear-capable US B-2 stealth bombers to the Korean peninsula in a show of support for the South.
According to the KCNA North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded on Friday, ordering the country's military leaders to put missile units on stand-by. KNCA said they would target US military bases in South Korea and the Pacific, although it said they were to fire only in retaliation.
"If they make a reckless provocation with huge strategic forces, the Korean People's Army should mercilessly strike the US mainland, their stronghold, their military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea," KCNA quoted Kim Jong-un as saying, in a report that could not be verified.
The English language news portal said that the North Korean leader "judged the time has come to settle accounts with the US imperialists in view of the prevailing situation."
The article referred to the arrival of two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers in the region as an "ultimatum that they will ignite a nuclear war at any cost."
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday Washington would not be deterred by Pyongyang's threats and was ready to respond to "any eventuality."
ccp/ch (AFP, Reuters)