SEOUL: North Korea on Thursday said it was ready for a “sacred war” using its nuclear weapons as the South held a live-fire drill in a show of strength a month after Pyongyang's deadly attack on a border island.
Armed forces minister Kim Young-Chun also repeated Pyongyang's charges that the South's exercises near the border were in preparation for a new Korean war, the communist state's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
“The revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK (North Korea) are getting fully prepared to launch a sacred war of justice of Korean style based on the nuclear deterrent at any time necessary to cope with the enemies' actions deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” Kim was quoted as saying.
The threat came after South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, visiting a frontline army unit elsewhere, warned of severe retaliation in the event of a new attack by the North.
Kim's comments prompted the US State Department to chide North Korea for its “belligerent tricks”.
“We need constructive actions, not heated rhetoric,” spokesman Philip Crowley said in a message on the micro-blogging website Twitter.
The South's military was heavily criticised for a perceived feeble response to last month's bombardment which killed four people including civilians.
It has been stressing its battle-readiness and determination to hit back harder next time, using air power.
“We should make a stronger and bigger counter-strike so they cannot provoke us again,” Lee was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.
“We've endured for long enough. We thought we could maintain peace on this land if we endured, but that was not the case,” Lee said. “Now we need to strongly retaliate to maintain peace, deter provocations and prevent war.”
People in the North, the president said, “are almost starving to death, and with the money spent to make atomic bombs, people could live”.
The exercise at the Pocheon range, 30 kilometres south of the tense land border with North Korea, lasted about 40 minutes.
Some 800 troops took part along with 30 tanks, 11 armoured personnel carriers, six jets, 36 artillery pieces, three multiple long-range rockets, seven helicopters and other equipment.
The navy began a four-day exercise off the east coast on Wednesday.
KCNA said the South was committing a “grave military provocation” by staging the drill.
The agency said the warning came during a meeting in Pyongyang marking the 19th anniversary of leader Kim Jong-Il gaining supreme command of the Korean People's Army.
The South says its drills are defensive. But tensions have been high on the peninsula since the North shelled Yeonpyeong island near the contested western sea border on November 23.
The North said its shelling was in response to the South's live-fire drill on the island. Seoul said it had been staging such artillery exercises for 37 years and its neighbour was seeking a pretext to attack.
Seoul staged a repeat drill on the same island on Monday, backed up by jet fighters and warships, but the North did not follow through with threats to retaliate.
Some analysts said Seoul's show of force deterred the North. Others said the hardline regime had been told by close ally China to exercise restraint before a visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao starting on January 19.
The military invited students and other locals to watch Thursday's exercise.
“Another North Korean provocation will happen. We should prepare our military perfectly for that,” Kim Tae-Dong, a 70-year-old Internet businessman, told a pool reporter.
Analysts agreed, saying Pyongyang was likely just biding its time before another strike.
“It's not a question of whether there will be another provocation, but when,” said Peter Beck, a North Korea expert with the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
President Lee said it was hard to predict how or where the North would attack again.
Tanks raced along roads, firing as they went in Thursday's drill. Hovering helicopters fired rockets at targets and F-15 aircraft dropped bombs into a valley, sending up huge plumes of smoke.
“Please understand that our military is equipped with every technology to destroy the enemy at a single stroke if the enemy recklessly stages a provocation,” Brigadier-General Joo Eun-Sik told reporters.
The United States, which has 28,500 troops based in the South, earlier warned North Korea there was no reason for it to respond to the latest drills.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the manoeuvres had been announced well in advance and were transparent and defensive, and “should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans”.
Channel News Asia