North Korea warned on Saturday that joint US and South Korean military exercises poised to begin this weekend amount to a military provocation that will draw a "powerful" nuclear response from Pyongyang.
North Korea routinely threatens war when South Korea and the US hold joint military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an attack on the North. The latest threat comes amid increased tensions on the peninsula over the deadly sinking of South Korean warship that Seoul and Washington blame on Pyongyang.
The allies' defense chiefs announced earlier in the week that they would stage the drills to send a clear message to North Korea to stop its "aggressive" behavior. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the March sinking of the Cheonan, considered the worst military attack on the South since the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea vehemently denies any involvement, and says any punishment would trigger war.
In Hanoi, a North Korean spokesman for the delegation attending a regional security conference warned on Friday that the drills would draw a "physical response" from Pyongyang.
On Saturday, North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission headed by leader Kim Jong Il, backed that threat up by promising a "retaliatory sacred war" against South Korea and the US for what it called a second "unpardonable" provocation after wrongly accusing the North in the Cheonan incident.
"The army and people of the (North) will legitimately counter with their powerful nuclear deterrence the largest-ever nuclear war exercises," the commission said in a statement carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency. South Korea's Defense Ministry said it had no immediate comment on the threat from North Korea.
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington supercarrier is already docked in the southern port of Busan for the military games set to begin from Sunday. In addition, the US keeps 28,500 troops in the South to deter against aggression, a presence that Pyongyang cites as a key reason behind its drive to build nuclear weapons.
"The more desperately the US imperialists brandish their nukes and the more zealously their lackeys follow them, the more rapidly the (North's) nuclear deterrence will be bolstered up along the orbit of self-defense and the more remote the prospect for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will be become," the commission statement said.
The US-South Korean military drills are to set to run through Wednesday, with about 8,000 US and South Korean troops on some 20 ships and submarines carrying out exercises in the East Sea. The drills also involve some 200 aircraft, headlined by four US Air Force's F-22 "Raptor" stealth fighters.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Wednesday, after visiting the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, that the US would slap new sanctions on the North to stifle its nuclear ambitions and punish it for the Cheonan sinking. On Friday, the European Union said it, too, would consider new sanctions on the North.
In Hanoi, Clinton and a North Korean official traded barbs on Friday over the sinking, the military drills and the imposition of the new US sanctions. North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il said the tensions showed the need to negotiate a peace treaty to replace the armistice signed at the end of the Korean War.
Clinton said the US is willing to meet and negotiate with the North, but that this type of threat only heightens tensions. She added that progress in the short term seems unlikely. "It is distressing when North Korea continues its threats and causes so much anxiety among its neighbors and the larger region," she told reporters. "But we will demonstrate once again with our military exercises ... that the United States stands in firm support of the defense of South Korea and we will continue to do so."
The 27-member bloc meeting in Hanoi, 10 members of ASEAN and countries with major interests in the area like the US, China, Japan, North and South Korea and Russia expressed "deep concern" over the Cheonan's sinking in a joint statement, a weakened version of an earlier ASEAN statement.