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(LEAD) N.K. threatens to strike special forces unit tasked with hitting its leadership

All News 14:39 January 17, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 8-9)

SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- North Korea threatened Tuesday to wipe out a planned South Korean special forces unit tasked with incapacitating its leadership in the event of conflict.

South Korea's defense ministry said in its 2017 policy plan that it will launch the special brigade two years ahead of schedule in an effort to counter North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. The unit will eliminate the North's leadership or at the very least make it ineffective.

The Rodong Sinmun, the main organ of the North's ruling party, warned that South Korea's announcement is a blatant declaration of war against Pyongyang, adding that it is ready to take action if Seoul makes provocative acts.

"The special unit will be the first target of our precision military strikes if it attempts to hit our leadership," the newspaper said in a commentary.

It said that any small accident can flare into war at a time when military tensions are heightened on the divided peninsula.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year's message that the country has entered the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The North is seeking to develop a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile capable of flying as far as the U.S. mainland.

The leader also warned that his country will boost military capabilities for self-defense and its preemptive strike capacity with a main emphasis on nuclear force if Seoul and Washington do not suspend their annual joint military drills. North Korea has long denounced the military drills between Seoul and Washington as a rehearsal for a northern invasion.

North Korea made the threat in the form of a writer's commentary by the paper. Though North Korea is sensitive to the outside world's comments targeting its leadership, the country has yet to release an official response by any state body.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said that North Korea would likely show a more intense reaction and issue stronger warnings in the name of the military's top commander if Seoul actually sets up the unit aimed at decapitating its leadership.

Experts said that the North is highly likely to carry out military provocations at some point in or near March to protest an upcoming military exercise between South Korea and the United States.

"We are closely monitoring the situation as we see a high possibility of a North Korean provocation around the time of the joint military drill," said a government official.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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