North Korea latest threats: North Korea says it has cut key military hotline to South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea - The Obama administration on Wednesday slammed North Korea's pugnacious rants toward South Korea and the West and a U.S. intelligence official called the strident remarks worrisome.

"The ratcheting up of rhetoric is of concern to us," the official said.

The question is whether this is "just rhetoric," he said. Or, "are things happening behind the scenes indicating the blustering has something to it."

North Korea earlier said it was cutting off a key military hotline with South Korea amid high tensions between the two sides.

"Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep north-south military communications," the head of a North Korean delegation told the South by telephone Wednesday, according to the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

There are several hotlines between North and South Korea. Earlier this month, Pyongyang disconnected a humanitarian hotline that ran through the border village of Panmunjom, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

The North linked the move to annual joint military exercises by South Korea and the United States, which it has cited in a string of threats against the two countries in recent weeks. Tougher sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council also may have fueled its anger.

"It is important the U.S. send a message. In terms of the military side, the U.S. has clearly sent a message," the official said. "When people engage in this sort of rhetoric, you can't appear as if you are not responding," the official said.

The intelligence community has been providing the Obama administration with assessments of Kim Jung Un's control of the regime, but the official would not provide any details of that assessment.

Administration officials also regretted the tough talk from Pyongyang. Josh Earnest, White House principal deputy press secretary, cited the "more bellicose rhetoric and threats that only follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others."

He said the United States is committed to ensuring the security of its allies, such as South Korea.

"The North Koreans are not going to achieve anything through these threats and provocations. They're only going to further isolate the North Koreans and undermine international efforts to bring peace and stability to northeast Asia," Earnest said.

Pentagon spokesman George Little spoke on the government's nuclear threats to the United States and "its more achievable threats to attack South Korean military units and shell border islands."

"We take their rhetoric seriously, whether it's outside the norm which it sometimes is, or seems to suggest a more direct threat. And if you look at what they've said recently, it's been extremely provocative, threatening and bellicose. And it's a complete mystery to me why they would deem it in their own interest to launch this type of rhetoric at us and our allies," Little said.

The North's announcement Wednesday appeared likely to affect the movement of people in and out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint economic cooperation zone between the two Koreas situated on the North's side of the border.

"The measure taken by North Korea is not beneficial for the stable operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and we urge them to withdraw the measure," the Unification Ministry said.

The ministry said it confirmed South Koreans who entered the complex Wednesday were safe. It said it planned to find a way to ensure the safe entry of people to the complex in the future.

Officials won't know for sure if the hotline they use for Kaesong has been cut off until Thursday, according to the ministry. It said that so far, it hadn't noted any issues with other hotlines, such as those used for aviation and maritime controls.

The North previously cut off the Kaesong hotline in March 2009 -- also during annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises -- but reinstated it in 2010, according to the semiofficial South Korean news agency Yonhap.

The slew of recent fiery rhetoric from Pyongyang has included threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea, as well as the declaration that the armistice that stopped the Korean War in 1953 is no longer valid.

On Tuesday, the North said it planned to place military units tasked with targeting U.S. bases under combat-ready status.

Most observers say North Korea is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile, but it does have plenty of conventional military firepower, including medium-range ballistic missiles that can carry high explosives for hundreds of miles.

The heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula came after the North carried out a long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test last month, prompting the U.N. Security Council to step up sanctions on the secretive regime.

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