HANOI, Vietnam – North Korea threatened today to mount a powerful nuclear response to upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, calling the exercises an “unpardonable” provocation on top of wrongly blaming Pyongyang for the sinking of a South Korean warship.
North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission, led by leader Kim Jong Il, warned that its troops would counter the move to hold military maneuvers involving a nuclear-armed U.S. supercarrier with a “retaliatory sacred war.”
Pyongyang routinely threatens war when South Korea and the U.S. hold joint military drills, which North Korea sees as a rehearsal for an attack on the North. The U.S. keeps 28,500 troops in the South to deter aggression, but says it has no intention of invading the North.
Washington and Seoul blame Pyongyang for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in the waters off Korea’s west coast. Forty-six sailors were killed.
North Korea vehemently denies any involvement, and has warned that any punishment would trigger war.
In Vietnam for a Southeast Asian regional security forum, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a North Korean official traded barbs over the sinking, the military drills and the imposition of new U.S. sanctions against the North.
At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Hanoi, North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il repeated Pyongyang’s denial of responsibility for the sinking. He said the upcoming military drills – to be conducted in the Sea of Japan off Korea’s east coast and in the Yellow Sea closer to China’s shores – were a violation of its sovereignty that harkened back to the days of 19th-century “gunboat diplomacy.”
The exercises will be “another expression of hostile policy against” North Korea. “There will be physical response against the threat imposed by the United States militarily,” Ri told reporters.
Clinton responded by saying the U.S. is willing to meet and negotiate with the North, but that this type of threat only heightens tensions.
“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.”
Members of the U.S. and North Korean delegations did not meet at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, which has in the past been a venue for talks between the two sides. The 27-member bloc – 10 members of ASEAN and countries with major interests in the area – expressed “deep concern” over the Cheonan’s sinking in a joint statement.