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(LEAD) S. Korea condemns N.K.'s war threats over Seoul-Washington military drill

All Headlines 14:50 February 02, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS more info in para 6, 4 paras)

SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea condemned North Korea on Thursday for threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes in response to a joint military exercise by Seoul and Washington scheduled for next month.

North Korea's agency handling inter-Korean affairs said Wednesday that the upcoming military drill will lead to "shameful destruction" for the two allies as North Korea is ready to take action against what it called their preparation for a nuclear war.

"If North Korea wants to see an improvement in the inter-Korean ties and peace on the Korean Peninsula, it should stop its bellicose rhetoric and take the path toward denuclearization and changes," said an official from Seoul's unification ministry.

Despite Seoul's assurance of its defensive nature, Pyongyang has long denounced the annual military exercise as a rehearsal for an invasion.

The North has insisted that its development of nuclear weapons is a deterrent against what it calls Washington's hostile policy toward it.

The threat was made as new U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived in Seoul on Thursday on his first overseas trip, which also includes a stop to Japan, since he took office last month.

(LEAD) S. Korea condemns N.K.'s war threats over Seoul-Washington military drill - 1

His trip is widely viewed as aiming to highlight the U.S. commitment to defending its key Asian allies amid North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threats.

The ministry official said that the North's statement was released earlier than expected as it usually unveiled the comment right before the March drill.

"The level of North Korea's bellicose rhetoric seems to be similar to that of last year, but North Korea's comments on pre-emptive strikes warrant close attention," he added.

Mattis plans to hold talks with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo in Seoul on Friday. Topics for the talks include the issue of whether Washington will deploy its strategic military assets to South Korea on a regular and rotational basis, according to a government source.

Timed with Mattis' visit, North Korea's state media claimed that the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea has raised tensions on the divided peninsula, calling for their withdrawal.

About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

"The removal of U.S. soldiers from South Korea is a prerequisite to moving toward unification and defending peace and security in the region," the Korean Central News Agency said in its commentary.

(LEAD) S. Korea condemns N.K.'s war threats over Seoul-Washington military drill - 2

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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