A high-level North Korean official recently warned that Pyongyang is prepared to launch a preemptive nuclear strike under threat from the United States.
Lee Yong Pil, the North Korean official, told NBC News in an interview published Monday that Pyongyang "will not step back as long as there’s a nuclear threat to us from the United States," emphasizing the repressive country’s nuclear capabilities.
"The U.S. has nuclear weapons off our coast, targeting our country, our capital, and our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un," said Lee, who directs the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies.
"A preemptive nuclear strike is not something the U.S. has a monopoly on," Lee further stated. "If we see that the U.S. would do it to us, we would do it first. … We have the technology."
U.S. officials do not believe North Korea to be in possession of nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. Still, U.S. defense officials generally name North Korea among the five major challenges facing America because of its nuclear program, which has invited international sanctions.
North Korea said in September that it had successfully detonated a nuclear warhead, marking Pyongyang’s fifth and most powerful nuclear test to date. Lee said that the country may undertake "a sixth, a seventh, or an eighth" nuclear test in the future.
Lee also said that international sanctions will not deter North Korea from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
"We have to have nuclear weapons to protect our country, and it’s our policy to go nuclear," Lee stated.
The publication of the interview followed an announcement from the Pentagon on Saturday that it detected a failed test launch of an intermediate ballistic missile by North Korea.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has emphasized the significant forward presence of U.S. forces in South Korea meant to protect allies from threats emanating from the North. Currently, there are roughly 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea to deter aggression from North Korea.
"It’s not a game," Carter said last month during an address in Washington, D.C. "The slogan of U.S. Forces Korea, many of you probably know, is ‘fight tonight.’ Not because that’s what we want to do, but because that’s what we have to be able to do and we are ready to do."
Lee told NBC that North Korea has been provoked by the "increasingly aggressive" military drills being conducted by the U.S. and South Korea.