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As North Korea continues to step up its threatening rhetoric, some Korean-Americans living in Northern Virginia are concerned for relatives living in South Korea, while trying to assess whether North Korea’s grandstanding is serious or just more of the same.

North Korea’s new supreme leader, 30-year-old Kim Jong-un, appears to be following in the footsteps of his father Kim Jong-il with anti-South Korean and anti-American threats, but because of his youth and the newness of his reign, the U.S. and South Korea are somewhat unsure of just how to take it.

“We’ve seen some historical trajectory here on where North Korea occasionally will go to try to get the attention of the United States, to try to maneuver us into some position favorable to them, whether it’s more assistance or bilateral engagement, but the fact is that this is the wrong way to go,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a news conference last week. “The action that he’s taken and the actions they’ve taken and the words he’s used, it is not going to project a more responsible, accountable relationship.”

North Korea stepped up its threats early Thursday following an action by North Koreans who locked out South Koreans from a joint factory complex and then announced plans to restart a nuclear reactor that has been shut down for five years. Following the incident, North Korean state news agency KCNA announced that, “The moment of explosion is approaching fast. No one can say a war will break out in Korea or not and whether it will break out today or tomorrow.”

Michael Kwon is a Springfield resident and the former vice president of the Falls Church-based Korean-American Association of Virginia, which represents about 100,000 Koreans living in Northern Virginia. He has lots of family in South Korea and travels there several times a year for his import/export business.

Kwon says that although South Koreans are used to a heightened awareness of potential dangers stemming from their northern neighbors — and have been for decades — current tensions there seem more serious now than ever.

“I have uncles, aunts, nephews and in-laws who live there,” Kwon said. “They are used to this type of thing, but some of them are saying that this time it seems a little more serious, primarily because Kim Jong-un is so young and untested and the U.S. seems to be more involved but still unsure just how seriously to take his threats.”

A recent public address by Hagel seems to confirm this.

“It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once,” he recently told an audience at Washington’s National Defense University.

The U.S. has begun flying a variety of bombers, including Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over South Korea, almost in an effort to show it is taking the threats seriously.

“That’s the whole thing,” Kwon said. “You have to take the threats seriously but you also don’t want to validate them. With the U.S. becoming more involved, I think everyone is watching more closely and taking this more seriously. One of my relatives said that it was broadcast on South Korean television that the current situation seems to be ‘the worst crisis since the Korean War.’”

Moo-Young Han, 78, a former Duke University physics professor and the father of Herndon Town Councilwoman Grace Han Wolf, lived in Korea during the Korean War.

“I was 15 when the war started, and my family lived in what is today North Korea,” Han said.

Han’s theory on the current crisis is that North Korea seems to be spouting empty rhetoric, but because of Kim Jong-un’s inexperience, the potential for danger is heightened.

“I think he is painting himself into a corner,” Han said. “He will have to back down, but he will almost also have to save face in some way. I think that perhaps his escalation of this situation is making him enemies within his own military regime. I think he may be making some senior Army generals very skeptical of his actions. You have to remember that the military in North Korea is not like it is here. They essentially control the economy. A four- or five-star general in North Korea is a very powerful person.”

For now, the Korean situation remains a game of wait-and-see.

“There is a lot of concern but also some levity,” Kwon said. “I was recently in New York on business and some people asked me if they thought I could get their orders into South Korea before the war starts. Seriously though, although the South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin has said that any provocation by North Korea will be answered, I have confidence in the South Korean government. I think they are taking this seriously but keeping cool heads and not overreacting.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com