According to a statement by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, there is a chance that the country could carry out a nuclear strike in retaliation for joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

The statement was released via state news agency KCNA on Monday, the same day that the Ulchi Freedom Guardian command and control exercise began. Tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean soldiers are participating in the military drills, which are scheduled to last for two weeks, writes Damien Sharkov for Newsweek.

North Korea
Photo by (stephan)

Pyongyang threatens nuclear strike as massive military drills begin

North Korea has threatened to carry out a nuclear strike in retaliation for the drills. For its part the U.S. has promised to send air defense systems to South Korea following continued missile tests from North Korea this year.

News of the planned deployment led to protests from Pyongyang, where officials accused Washington of “creating an evil cycle of tensions” and “bringing the grave danger of a 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 statement read.

North Korea says first strike units are fully ready

According to the general staff of the North Korean military, the U.S. and South Korea are guilty of “saber-rattling.” A statement said that “nuclear war may break out any moment” on the Korean peninsula.

“They should properly know that from this moment the first-strike combined units of the KPA keep themselves fully ready to mount a pre-emptive retaliatory strike at all enemy attack groups involved in Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” the statement read.

“The nuclear warmongers should bear in mind that if they show the slightest sign of aggression on the inviolable land, seas and air where the sovereignty of the DPRK is exercized, it would turn the stronghold of provocation into a heap of ashes through Korean-style pre-emptive nuclear strike.”

Tensions already high on Korean peninsula

The South Korean Ministry of Unification said that the drill is purely defensive, expressing its regret about threats of nuclear war from the North.

“It is regrettable that North Korea threatens to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the South,” Jeong Joon-hee, ministry spokesman, told Yonhap news agency. “North Korea should suspend its nuclear and missile programs and make the right choice.”

As a long-time North Korean ally, China has criticized the war games. Officials said that the exercises are likely to make North Korea “more aggressive” at a time when tensions have been high.

Pyongyang continues to develop nuclear weapons despite punitive international sanctions that are among the most extensive ever imposed on a nation. The secretive nature of North Korea and its nuclear program mean that experts are not entirely sure how well developed Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are.

What comes next on the Korean peninsula?

Experts are divided over how many warheads North Korea has in its possession, and how far its missiles would be capable of delivering those warheads.

According to the United Nations nuclear watchdog, North Korea restarted its plutonium making activities earlier this year. However it looks as though efforts were wound down in July.

South Korea believes that its neighbor may turn to assassinations and kidnappings to assert its authority following a number of recent defections. An official from the Unification Ministry said that North Korea is in “a very difficult situation” following the defection of the North Korean deputy ambassador to London.

“Considering [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-Un’s character, it is very dangerous,” said the unidentified official. “It is highly likely that North Korea will make various attempts to prevent further defections and unrest among its people.”

Following his defection, Thae Yong Ho was scathingly criticized by the North Korean media, who called him “human scum.” They also alleged that he had been called back to North Korea following a number of criminal acts, including the sexual assault of a minor.

South Korean president Park Geun-hye said that there are “serious cracks” in North Korea’s ruling class, predicting that Pyongyang would attempt to divert attention from domestic problems. However many analysts believe that although the defection of Thae is embarrassing for North Korea, it would not cause any great disruption to the elite.

It looks as though tensions will continue to bubble on the Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang seemingly determined to soldier on with its nuclear and missile programs despite the hardships of living under extensive sanctions.