North Korea's latest threats to annihilate its enemies have included a vow to scrap the 1953 armistice, the main legal document that theoretically stands in the way of a resumption of the Korean War, a conflict that by some estimates left nearly 5 million people dead, including more than 33,700 U.S. soldiers.
But the North Koreans have said many times over the years that they were disregarding the armistice. It is not a peace treaty but rather a military document, reflecting what was at the time a stalemated conflict that no one wanted to prolong.
What is unclear is whether North Korea will make good on its vow to disregard the armistice this time, and what such a step would mean. While it may be bluster, analysts who study North Korea are not so sure.
Some fear that Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young and untested leader, perhaps believing that his country is now a nuclear power, may regard the armistice as outdated, reflecting deterrents that no longer exist. If so, they say, he could feel emboldened to carry out a military provocation against South Korea.
The armistice was meant to be temporary, until a peace treaty between the governments in the conflict could be reached. It was the basis for the mechanisms that deter a resumption of the war, including the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, a communications hotline and a joint commission for resolving allegations of violations.
"An armistice reflects a balance of forces, the combatants reach a state of exhaustion, so you get a sort of equilibrium," said Stephan M. Haggard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "The armistice sustains itself in part because the parties recognize they can't make gains by fighting."
In a blog post on the institute's website, Haggard enumerated more than a half-dozen instances since 1991 when North Korea vowed to abandon the armistice or challenged its legitimacy. The North's latest threat, he wrote, could mean that it feels empowered by nuclear arms to strike with impunity, or that it simply regards the armistice as unsupportable.
"Or," he wrote, "it could be just noise and signify nothing. Not knowing what the North Koreans really think is a central source of the current instability on the peninsula at the moment."
In the past, North Korea has raised the fear of accidental or uncontrolled military clashes along the border as a way to push Washington into bilateral talks. The North, officials in South Korea say, craves the prestige that such a dialogue would confer on it, but it would undoubtedly demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.
The armistice states that any change must be agreed to by all the signers and that unilateral declarations are unacceptable a point reiterated Thursday by Gen. James D. Thurman, the U.S. commander in charge of enforcing the armistice conditions. He was responding to the North's assertion that it would consider the armistice null and void as of Monday, when military exercises by the United States and South Korea get under way.
"For over 60 years, the armistice agreement has ensured peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Thurman said. "It is concerning when any signatory to a mutual agreement makes a public statement contrary to that agreement."
But given North Korea's seemingly irrational behavior at times, the legal notification obligations required in the armistice may be regarded as irrelevant in North Korea.
Last week, North Korea's main party newspaper said the country was justified in unilaterally nullifying the armistice because its repeated demands for peace talks since the 1970s had been snubbed by Washington.
"This is the most opaque country in the world," said William R. Keylor, a professor of international relations at Boston University. He called the North Korean threat to disregard the armistice "a very serious development."
Keylor and others also said they saw a message of anger in the North's threat that was directed at China, its Korean War ally. Many senior North Korean officials, some of them veterans of the war, may regard it as a betrayal that China collaborated with the United States to draft the new U.N. Security Council sanctions that penalized the North for its third nuclear test last month.
"It's possible this is a signal to the Chinese government from the North Koreans that they're going to go their own way," Keylor said. "By canceling the armistice, they're saying, 'We're pursuing our own policy.' "