North Korea intensified its threats of an imminent attack against the South Tuesday, while President Obama said the United States does not believe the communist regime has the ability to launch a nuclear weapon.
Ministers in Pyongyang demanded that South Korea apologize for its anti-North protests on Monday or face devastating attacks. Military officials promised to rain "sledgehammer blows" for the South's protests, which came during the North's celebration of the 101st birthday of its founder. Effigies of Kim Il-sung and his late son and successor, Kim Jong-il, were burned in Seoul.
"Our retaliatory action will start without any notice from now," North Korea's state-run media reported, citing military leaders. "The military demonstration of the [North's] revolutionary armed forces will be powerful sledgehammer blows at all hostile forces hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership."
Joint military drills by the U.S. and South Korea are scheduled to end April 30. On Tuesday, a Marine CH-53E helicopter with 21 personnel aboard made a "hard landing" during the exercises. All aboard were taken to a hospital, and 15 were released. The remaining six were in stable condition.
The U.S. and South Korea are watching for signs that the regime of Kim Jong-un, the North's third-generation dictator, is preparing to launch medium-range missiles in violation of international law. North Korea is angry about new sanctions imposed by the U.N. for its third nuclear arms test in February.
A declassified defense report last week indicated that North Korea might have the ability to put a small nuclear device on a missile, but Mr. Obama said the United States does not believe North Korea has the ability to launch a nuclear weapon.
"Based on our current intelligence assessments, we do not think they have that capacity," the president said on NBC's "Today" show.
Asked if he thinks Mr. Kim Jong-un is unstable, Mr. Obama replied, "I'm not a psychiatrist."
"I don't know the leader of North Korea," he said. "What I do know is the actions they've taken, the rhetoric they've engaged in is provocative. It's unnecessary. If they want to rejoin the community of nations, that path is open to them."
The president said the U.S. won't "reward this kind of provocative behavior."
"You don't get to bang your spoon on the table ... and get your way," Mr. Obama said. "We've seen this kind of pattern before. North Korea probably will make more provocative moves over the next several weeks. Our hope is that we can contain it."
North Korea has issued a string of threats against South Korea, Japan and the United States in recent weeks.
The North said Tuesday it would refuse any offers of talks with the South until it apologized for the "monstrous criminal act."
"If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologize for all anti-[North] hostile acts, big and small, and show the compatriots their will to stop all these acts in practice," the statement said.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said South Korea is monitoring North Korea's moves and is ready for any attack.
The North's threat is "regrettable," Mr. Kim told reporters. "We will thoroughly and resolutely punish North Korea if it launches any provocation for whatever reason."
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee Monday that North Korea still appears poised to launch a missile from its east coast. To further coordinate a response, South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, will meet with Mr. Obama on May 7 at the White House.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States is open to dialogue with North Korea but only if Pyongyang proves itself to be trustworthy.
"The burden remains on Pyongyang," Mr. Ventrell said. "They need to take meaningful steps to show that they'll honor their commitments. We need to see them be serious about denuclearization, indicate their seriousness, and start to reduce the threats and stop provocations."
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