SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea vowed Tuesday to punish U.S. and South Korean "warmongers" after the American military said it would go ahead with annual joint exercises that Pyongyang calls an invasion rehearsal.
Tensions in Northeast Asia have spiked amid mounting concern over the North's apparent plan to test-launch a missile believed capable of reaching the U.S. west coast.
Many analysts have said the launch threat is a bid to draw President Barack Obama's attention as his administration formulates its North Korea policy to move stalled international disarmament talks forward. Obama's new envoy to North Korea arrived in Bejing on Tuesday to the region for talks with his counterparts to the nuclear talks.
North Koreas's military demanded Monday that the U.S.-South Korean drills be called off during rare talks with U.S.-led U.N. forces on the Korean peninsula, according to media reports.
But U.S. military spokesman Kim Yong-kyu said Tuesday the exercises — involving 26,000 American troops, an unspecified number of South Korean soldiers, and a U.S. aircraft carrier — would go ahead at sites across South Korea from March 9-20.
On Tuesday, the North's state media said the U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers were aimed at "rounding off the capability to make a military strike."
"The revolutionary armed forces of (North Korea) are in full combat readiness to resolutely shatter any provocation of the enemy," the Minju Joson newspaper said in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea has routinely condemned any military exercises as rehearsal for an attack. Washington and Seoul say they have no such intention.
Further escalating the stand off, the North said last week it would launch a communications satellite into orbit. But neighboring governments believe the claim may be a cover for a long-range missile test and have warned the regime such a move would invite international sanctions. Analysts say satellites and missiles use similar delivery systems.
South Korea's new Unification Minister Hyun In-taek urged the North on Tuesday to halt any provocative acts and agree to defuse tension through dialogue.
Japan plans to deploy an Aegis-radar equipped destroyer carrying a missile interceptor, reported Kyodo news agency, quoting unnamed defense sources. The North test-fired a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, a launch the regime also claimed was a satellite.
Japan's Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said it is "natural" for Tokyo to "respond to any situations" when asked whether the navy plans to shoot down a North Korean missile. He did not elaborate.
North Korea unsuccessfully test-fired a long-range missile in 2006, but is believed to have made improvements in its missile capabilities. Analysts say satellite images reveal brisk activity at a launch pad in North Korea's northeast.
The new American special envoy for North Korean nuclear talks, Stephen W. Bosworth, will meet with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, who heads the Chinese delegation in talks, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
Bosworth will also travel Japan and South Korea, and will consult with Russian officials who will travel separately to the region.