SEOUL — North Korea said yesterday it reserves the right to make a “pre-emptive” attack on U.S. and South Korean targets, a chilling reminder of threats by Pyongyang a decade ago to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
North Korea, which says it has nuclear weapons, also called the annual U.S.-South Korea “Ulchi Focus Lens” exercise “an undisguised military threat” and a “war action.”
In a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, the North Korean military said it “reserves the right to undertake a pre-emptive action for self-defense against the enemy at a crucial time it deems necessary to defend itself.”
North Korea is known for its rhetorical blasts. The most notable came during a 1994 crisis over North Korean attempts to make nuclear bombs, in which a senior official threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
The U.S.-South Korean war games began Monday.
United States Forces Korea says the exercise is a “command-post exercise,” using computer simulation as well as troops on the ground. It involves 17,000 personnel.
The operational “Team Spirit” joint exercise, which fielded 200,000 troops, was last held in 1993.
Though Pyongyang habitually slams annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, yesterday’s warning ratchets up tensions at a time when Northeast Asia is jittery over North Korea.
In July, the North conducted a series of missile tests and continues to boycott six-nation talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to halt and dismantle its nuclear-weapons programs.
ABC News, citing U.S. officials, reported last week that the North may be preparing a nuclear test. Japanese and South Korean intelligence officials have said they have seen signs of an impending test.
Yesterday’s statement by the North Korean news agency also declared the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War “null and void.”
One of Pyongyang’s long-standing policy aims has been the replacement of the armistice with a peace treaty.
The latter would call into question the continued presence of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula — troops the North routinely claims are preparing to invade.
North Korea has sought for years to pry Seoul away from its alliance with Washington and to remove U.S. troops from the South.
“The head-in-the-sand brigade in the South will say, ‘Yeah, North Korea’s weapons are just pointed at U.S. bases,’” said Michael Breen, the Seoul-based author of “Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.”
“It is significant that South Koreans are no longer united in animosity toward North Korea — as they used to be,” Mr. Breen said.