Seoul, South Korea –
North Korea on Thursday threatened the “toughest reaction” to the expansion of joint US-South Korean military exercises to counter the North’s growing nuclear weapons ambitions, claiming the allies were bringing tensions to a ” extreme red line”.
The statement from Pyongyang’s foreign ministry came in response to comments by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said Tuesday in Seoul that the United States would increase its deployment of advanced military assets on the Korean Peninsula. , including fighter jets and aircraft carriers, as it strengthens joint training and operational planning with South Korea.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said the United States flew B-1B bombers and F-22 and F-35 fighter jets in an exercise with South Korean fighters on Wednesday over western South Korean waters in its latest show of force. . The United States and South Korea also plan to hold a simulation exercise this month with the aim of honing their response if North Korea uses nuclear weapons.
In a statement attributed to an unnamed spokesman for its Foreign Ministry, North Korea said the expansion of allied drills threatens to turn the Korean Peninsula into a “huge arsenal of warfare and a more critical war zone.” “. The statement said the North is prepared to counter any short- or long-term military challenge from allies with the “most overwhelming nuclear force.”
“The military and political situation on the Korean Peninsula and the region has reached an extreme red line due to reckless military confrontational maneuvers and hostile acts by the United States and its vassal forces,” the spokesman said.
North Korea for decades has portrayed combined US military exercises with South Korea as rehearsals for a possible invasion, even though the allies have portrayed those exercises as defensive.
Last year, North Korea stepped up its own weapons demonstrations as the allies resumed full-scale training that had been reduced for years. North Korea’s actions included a series of missile and artillery fires that it described as simulated nuclear strikes against South Korean and US targets.
“The DPRK will react most harshly to any US military attempt under the principle of ‘nuclear weapon for nuclear weapon and all-out confrontation for all-out confrontation.” Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“If the United States continues to introduce strategic assets into and around the Korean Peninsula, the DPRK will make its deterrence activities clearer without fail in accordance with its nature,” the spokesman said.
Jeon Ha-kyu, a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said the ministry had no immediate comment in response to the North Korean statement. He said the latest allied air exercises were aimed at demonstrating the credibility of the United States’ “extended deterrence,” referring to a commitment to use the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear ones, to defend South Korea. He declined to reveal the exact number of US and South Korean aircraft involved in the exercise.
Austin’s visit came as South Korea seeks stronger assurances that the United States will quickly and decisively use its nuclear capabilities to protect its ally against a North Korean nuclear attack.
South Korea’s security nerves have been heightened since North Korea tested dozens of missiles in 2022, including nuclear-capable ones designed to strike targets in South Korea and the continental United States. North Korea’s heightened test activity has been marked by threats to preemptively use its nuclear weapons in a wide range of scenarios where it perceives its leadership to be under threat, including conventional engagements or non-war situations. .
At a press conference after their meeting, Austin said he and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup have agreed to further expand their combined military exercises, including more live-fire demonstrations. They pledged to continue a “timely and coordinated” deployment of US strategic assets in the region.
They said their countries’ resumption of large-scale military exercises last year effectively demonstrated their combined capabilities to deter North Korean aggression. The allies had scaled back their training in recent years to create space for diplomacy with North Korea during the Trump administration and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Korea and the United States have also been strengthening their security cooperation with Japan, which has included trilateral missile defense and anti-submarine warfare exercises in recent months amid North Korea’s provocative series of weapons tests.
“We’ve deployed fifth generation aircraft, F-22s and F-35s, we’ve deployed a carrier strike group to visit the peninsula. You can expect more of that type of activity in the future,” Austin said.
Tensions could escalate further in the coming months with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubling down on his nuclear ambitions.
During a political conference in December, Kim called for an “exponential increase” in nuclear warheads, the mass production of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons against South Korea and the development of more powerful long-range missiles designed to reach the United States. Continental United.
Experts say Kim’s nuclear push is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and then negotiate much-needed economic concessions from a position of strength.
Nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea have been derailed since 2019 over disagreements over an easing of US-led economic sanctions against the North in exchange for moves by North Korea to reduce its nuclear weapons programs. nuclear weapons and missiles.
The North Korean spokesman said Pyongyang is not interested in any contact or dialogue with the United States as long as it maintains its “hostile policy and line of confrontation,” accusing Washington of maintaining sanctions and military pressure to force the North to “disarm unilaterally.” .”