SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Monday threatened to launch nuclear strikes at the United States and its military bases in Northeast Asia as the United States and South Korea began one of their annual large-scale joint military exercises.
Thousands of American Marines and other troops arrived in South Korea in the past week for the exercises, which will involve 17,000 American and 300,000 South Korean troops. The drills test the allies’ ability to respond to North Korean attacks on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has made similar threats before, characterizing the exercises as rehearsals for an invasion. But this year, tensions are raised even higher because of the North’s recent nuclear test and the ensuing international condemnations.
Last month, after the North launched a long-range rocket to put a satellite into orbit, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced that this year’s drills would be the largest ever. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John C. Stennis will join the exercises, the American and South Korean militaries said in a joint statement on Monday.
In its statement, North Korea threatened to launch “all-out offensive” and “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes against “U.S. imperialist aggressor forces bases in the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. mainland,” the North’s top governing agency, the National Defense Commission, said in the statement.
The statement was carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment,” the statement said.
South Korea responded quickly to the North’s threats. “North Korea must stop its rash and reckless behavior,” Moon Sang-gyun, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said. “We will respond resolutely and mercilessly if the North ignores our warning and attempts a provocation.”
South Korean officials and analysts say the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is using the threats of war to consolidate support around his leadership and extract concessions from the North’s adversaries.
North Korea is widely believed to have a small number of nuclear weapons, and it claims to have the ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. But it is unclear how close the country has come to acquiring the technologies needed to build an intercontinental ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a missile.
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and launched its long-range rocket a month later. Last week, the United Nations Security Council adopted a new round of tougher sanctions aimed at curbing the North’s nuclear program.
North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests since 2006. It has also placed two satellites into orbit since late 2012. Washington said the North’s satellite program was a cover for developing a long-range ballistic missile in defiance of a Security Council ban.