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SEOUL — Despite the near-daily threats of war, there are no signs that North Korea is planning an assault against the South and leader Kim Jong Un may in fact be looking for an “off ramp” to scale back the increased tensions of recent weeks, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

“We are seeing nothing to back up the rhetoric,” said the official, who spoke on background to reporters at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul.

However, the military still does not know whether Pyongyang is planning some sort of provocation, such as a nuclear test, the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, or even the testing of a missile engine. And, Kim may view those sorts of tactical provocations as a way to step back from his escalating threats without starting a full-blown war.

“Any one of those things could happen and we could have little to no notice, and we might not know until the missile is airborne,” the official said. “I don’t think any of us truly know what the true intentions of the Kim regime are.”

He said that despite the increased tension on the peninsula, activity along the Demilitarized Zone is “essentially business as usual,” with civilian tours to Panmunjom being conducted on both sides of the border and no detected increase in North Korea troop activity or large scale movements or exercises.

The possibility of miscalculation by the relatively inexperienced Kim remains the greatest U.S. concern, the official said.

Although he’s been in office for more than a year, Kim still is trying to tighten his grip on power, particularly over the military.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress last week that his analysts believe Kim uses rhetoric to gain recognition, and to maneuver the international community into concessions in future negotiations.

“His primary objective is to consolidate, affirm his power, and much of the rhetoric, in fact all of the belligerent rhetoric of late, I think is designed for both an internal and an external audience, but I think first and foremost it’s to show that he is firmly in control in North Korea,” Clapper said.

Kim might conduct a missile test to prove to his country that he can stand up to the United States, the official said Tuesday in Seoul. But “it could also just as easily be a veiled attempt to test a missile.”

North Korea kept up its rhetoric on Tuesday, a day after protesters burned effigies of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, late leader Kim Jong Il, in Seoul.

Such protests are common in South Korea. But Monday’s demonstration — held on the 101st anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth — likely stung the North a little more than usual. The North said it would refuse any offers of talks with the South until it apologized for the “monstrous criminal act.”

“If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologize for all anti-DPRK hostile acts, big and small, and show the compatriots their will to stop all these acts in practice,” the statement said.

The North also issued an “ultimatum” to the South, claiming that “retaliatory action will start without any notice.”

The statement follows weeks of threats from the North after the United Nations slapped sanctions on the country for violating Security Council resolutions barring the regime from nuclear and missile activity.

The increased frequency and hostility of the threats has led many to speculate that Pyongyang would soon conduct some sort of provocation, possibly in conjunction with celebrations of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15.

In case of a provocation, military leaders could quickly determine whether South Korea would respond alone, with U.S. help, or if a response would be needed at all, the official said.

A military response would happen only if South Korea was threatened, the official said, reiterating that the U.S. has seen no indication that the North is planning such action.

“If anything, a missile might be shot into the water, as it was in 2009,” he said.

Kim, who is believed to be about 30, oversees a military of more than 1 million, including large special operations forces.

He also oversees a vast decaying conventional arsenal of Soviet equipment that is in decline, the official said.

“It’s getting old and it’s very hard to get spare parts,” the official said, adding: “I also think that in the last probably two decades, a deliberate decision was made at that time by Kim Jong Il to pursue asymmetric weapons,” such as nuclear power and other weapons of mass destruction, so it could compete with the South’s growing military capabilities.

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