North Korea has been methodically ratcheting up regional tensions since it launched another nuclear test in February 2013. Here are the key regional developments since the test:
On February 12, North Korea confirmed that it had conducted its third nuclear test. They conducted the test of a small plutonium bomb at an underground facility and the resulting tremors were detected relatively quickly by neighboring countries.
The international community had long warned North Korea of additional sanctions should it choose to progress with its nuclear program in violation of United Nations resolutions. On March 7, the United Nations voted to impose harsh additional sanctions. In a significant development, China signed on to the resolution, which made the potential ramifications of the sanctions much more serious for the regime in Pyongyang.
Pyongyang responded to the sanctions by threatening "countermeasures."
The timing of the previously planned annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States added tinder to the fire. Beginning on March 1, the U.S. and South Korea conducted joint military exercises in a show of strength. These exercises elicited an increasingly angry reaction from North Korea as the month wore on, particularly when the U.S. used the opportunity to conduct B-52 flyovers.
After several days of threatening to do so, North Korea announced on March 11 that it had "scrapped" the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War. The United States responded with additional sanctions.
On March 26, South Korea held a memorial service for the third anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan warship. It is widely believed that North Korea sank the ship, which killed 46.
On the same day, North Korea announced that it would prepare forces to target locations in the United States and South Korea, including U.S. bases such as Hawaii and Guam. Whether North Korea actually has the capability to hit U.S. targets is under debate.
The next day, on March 27, North Korea severed a military hotline with South Korea. The hotline facilitated the passage of South Korean workers to the Kaesong industrial complex. On April 3, North Korea announced that it would close access to the complex for South Korean workers. Pyongyang had announced on March 30 that it was officially in a “state of war” with South Korea.
Recent events indicate that North Korea may be be preparing for another round of tests or drills. On April 2, North Korea said that it would restart its Yongbyon nuclear facilities. On April 4, the government moved a missile to its east coast, concerning Japan. The next day, North Korea warned foreign embassies that they may need to evacuate soon, saying that they will be "unable to guarantee" their safety after April 10.
A number of experts have suggested that this most recent bout of tensions will result in a low-level military provocation by North Korea.
Victor Cha and Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies write that based on the current combination of negative indicators, observers should "expect a North Korean provocation in the coming weeks."
As observers have previously pointed out, it will be difficult for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to back down from his threats without losing face. He will likely need to act in order to maintain his domestic standing. However, he may choose a limited action along the lines of the previous Cheonan warship sinking that will prevent the conflict from escalating to all-out war.