North Korea warned Monday that it would launch a preemptive nuclear attack against the U.S. and South Korea if they showed the "slightest sign of aggression" toward Pyongyang while conducting their annual military drills.
The North’s Foreign Ministry said its "first-strike" units are prepared to conduct retaliatory strikes on South Korean and U.S. forces, threatening to turn the two nations into "a heap of ashes."
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The 12-day Ulchi Freedom Guardian command and control drills began Monday with 25,000 American troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers participating, according to both militaries.
Washington and Seoul have insisted that the exercises are defensive and non-provocative, but North Korea sees the drills as preparation for an invasion.
Pyongyang also protested Monday the U.S.’s plan to deliver air defense systems to South Korea amid restarted nuclear missile tests in the North. The Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of "creating an evil cycle of tensions" and "bringing the grave danger of nuclear war to the Korean peninsula."
"It is the consistent stand of the [North Korean] government to fundamentally terminate the danger of a nuclear war posed by the U.S. by dint of the powerful nuclear deterrence and defend the regional and global peace," the government said in a statement.
The drills come two days after Seoul confirmed that the nation’s second highest-ranking official at the North’s embassy in London had defected to South Korea. Pyongyang’s state media called him "human scum" and charged that he had been ordered back to the North on criminal allegations that included sexually assaulting a minor, the Associated Press reported.
South Korea’s president said Monday that Pyongyang’s ruling class had shown signs of "serious cracks" and that the government may carry out an attack to deflect public attention from its domestic issues.
A South Korean official told Sky News that "it is highly likely that North Korea will make various attempts to prevent further defections and unrest among its people."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered tests in March of long-rang ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The order was considered part of the North’s response to the annual military drills between the U.S. and South Korea.
Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear program despite U.S. and United Nations sanctions against the country.