(From agencies)

South Korean and U.S. troops began large-scale military exercises on Monday in an annual test of their defenses against North Korea, which called the drills “nuclear war moves” and threatened to turn Washington and Seoul into “flames and ashes.”

A new large-caliber rocket being test-fired at an undisclosed location in North Korea in this file photo

The joint U.S. and South Korean military command said it had notified North Korea of the non-provocative nature of the joint drills — known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle — involving 300,000 South Korean and 15,000 US troops, as well as strategic US naval vessels and air force assets.

However, North Korea’s National Defense Commission said the North Korean army and people would “realize the greatest desire of the Korean nation through a sacred war of justice for reunification”, in response to any attack by U.S. and South Korean forces.

“The army and people of the DPRK will launch an all-out offensive to decisively counter the U.S. and its followers’ hysterical nuclear war moves,” the North Korean commission said in a statement carried by the North’s KCNA news agency.

“If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment,” the North’s statement said.

The threat came just days after leader North’s leader Kim Jong-Un ordered the country’s nuclear arsenal to be placed on standby for use “at any moment,” in response to the sanctions resolution adopted last week by the UN Security Council.

Pyongyang has issued similar, dire warnings of nuclear attack in the past, usually during periods of elevated military tensions.

While the North is known to have a small stockpile of nuclear warheads, experts are divided about its ability to mount them on a working missile delivery system.

The National Defence Commission said plans for what it called a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” had been drawn up by the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army and ratified by Kim.

The plans would come into operation in the event of “even the slightest military action” by the North’s enemies, it said.

“The indiscriminate nuclear strike… will clearly show those keen on aggression and war, the military mettle of (North Korea),” KCNA said.

Targets would include operational theatres on the Korean peninsula, but also US bases on the mainland and in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

Pyongyang has long condemned the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises, which stretch over nearly two months, as provocative rehearsals for invasion, while Seoul and Washington insist they are purely defensive in nature.

The size of this year’s drills was ramped up as a show of strength in the face of the North’s fourth nuclear test on January 6 and February’s rocket launch, which was seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.

A UN Security Council resolution adopted last week laid out the toughest sanctions imposed on Pyongyang to date over its nuclear weapons programme and will, if implemented effectively, apply significant economic pressure on Kim’s regime.

South Korea is set to unveil tougher unilateral sanctions against the North on Tuesday — a move that is likely to draw further threats of retaliation from Pyongyang.

China concerned over drills

China’s foreign ministry said it was “very concerned” about the ongoing joint military drills between South Korea and the United States.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that Beijing  has also taken note of North Korea’s harsh verbal threats against the military drills.

“China is firmly opposed to any action that causes trouble” on the Korean Peninsula, Hong said. “We will not accept any trouble-making behavior on our doorstep.”

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