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."
Another U.S. official said there is a lot of uncertainty about North Korea's intentions.
"North Korea is not a paper tiger so it wouldn't be smart to dismiss its provocative behavior as pure bluster," that official said.
"What's not clear right now is how much risk (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un is willing to run, to show the world and domestic elites that he's a tough guy. His inexperience is certain -- his wisdom is still very much in question."
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 Red Cross hotline that ran through the border village of Panmunjom and was used by officials on both sides, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.
And senior U.S. officials do not believe the cutting off of some communication by North Korea in itself is indicative of more dramatic action or is conclusive. The officials note that North Korea has cut these links before, some of them multiple times.
"It's part of the current threat-of-the-day pattern. I wouldn't extrapolate it to anything more conclusive," one official said.
"They want attention and they want to scare people both inside and outside their country."
Officials see steps such as cutting off communication are more substitutes for doing other more dangerous things rather than precursors to more dangerous things.
"That is certainly our fervent hope," the official said.
At the same time, there is concern about a North Korean miscalculation during this time. The officials said the lack of communication could complicate and hamper the ability of all nations involved (including North Korea, South Korea and the United States) to control and moderate any action -- and cycle of reaction should one begin as the result of a North Korean miscalculation.
The North linked its 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 intelligence 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. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell cited "more bellicose rhetoric and threats (that) follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others."
Josh Earnest, White House principal deputy press secretary, 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.