(ATTN: RECASTS lead, UPDATES with N. Korean envoy's warning)
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL/WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, Aug. 22 (Yonhap) -- North Korea warned Saturday it is prepared to go to "all-out war," further heightening tensions with South Korea in the wake of an exchange of artillery fire, as the Pyongyang-set deadline for defusing the crisis is approaching fast.
The North's foreign ministry issued the warning, claiming once again that the country never started Thursday's exchange of fire with the South and accusing Seoul of fabricating the allegations that the communist nation fired first.
"The army and people of the DPRK are poised not to just counteract or make any retaliation but not to rule out an all-out war to protect the social system, their own choice, at the risk of their lives," the North said in a statement carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
The current situation has "reached the brink of war" and "is now hardly controllable," it said.
Apparently referring to China's call for restraint on both sides, the North said it has exercised "our self-restraint for decades," adding, "Now no one's talk about self-restraint is helpful to putting the situation under control."
The statement is the latest in a series of harsh war threats from Pyongyang.
On Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presided over an emergency meeting of the Central Military Commission and ordered the country's front-line military to have full combat readiness. He also declared a "quasi-state of war," according to state media.
Pyongyang had earlier issued an ultimatum that it would take strong military action unless South Korea halts anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts along the border and dismantles all loudspeakers within 48 hours, which would be up at 5 p.m. Saturday local time.
The North's deputy U.N. ambassador, An Myong-hun, also warned of strong military action.
"If South Korea does not respond to our ultimatum, our military counteraction will be inevitable, and that counteraction will be very strong," An said at a news conference.
The envoy also said that his mission demanded the U.N. Security Council convene an emergency meeting to discuss the South's propaganda broadcasts and the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
Pyongyang's ambassadors to Russia and China also issued similar warnings, speaking of "our rough and prompt reaction" and a "harsh response," respectively, should the South fail to comply with its demand by the deadline.
The United States said it takes the North's rhetoric seriously.
"We take seriously North Korea's threatening rhetoric, which is designed to raise tensions and is not conducive to ensuring peace and stability on the Peninsula," said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "We will continue to closely monitor the situation."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to refrain from further escalating tensions and hold dialogue to bring peace back to the divided peninsula.
"He urges the parties to refrain from taking any further measures that might increase tensions," U.N. associate spokesperson Eri Kaneko said. "He also calls on parties to engage in dialogue to reduce tensions and to promote peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Tensions between the Koreas have risen dramatically since Thursday's exchange of fire.
The North fired one artillery shell across the border Thursday afternoon before firing several more rounds later in apparent anger over South Korea's resumption of propaganda broadcasts. South Korea responded by firing dozens of shells.
The exchange left no casualties or damage on either side.
The North's provocation came not only after the South resumed the propaganda broadcasts, but it also came just days after the South and the U.S. launched the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises that Pyongyang condemns as a rehearsal for invasion.
The South resumed the loudspeaker broadcasts after an investigation determined that North Korea secretly buried landmines on the southern side of the DMZ that exploded earlier this month and maimed two South Korean soldiers.
In the face of the North's war threats, South Korea has put its military on the highest alert.
On Friday, President Park Geun-hye ordered the military to respond thoroughly and sternly to any North Korean provocations. Defense Minister Han Min-koo said the South will make the North "pay a harsh price" if it launches provocations again.
North Korea has claimed it never fired first in Thursday's shootout.
"The South Korean puppet forces claimed before any others that they made a retaliatory firing because the DPRK's side fired one shell first, but this was a completely sheer lie and fabrication," the North's foreign ministry statement said.
"The recent shelling incident unilaterally committed by the South Korean puppet forces was neither incidental nor an accident but a carefully calculated provocation committed by themselves," it said.
It is not new for North Korea to deny responsibility for provocation against the South.
Pyongyang still denies sinking a South Korean warship in 2010, which claimed the lives of 46 South Korea sailors. The North also denied it secretly planted landmines on the South Korean side of the border that exploded early this month and maimed two South Korean soldiers.
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