(ATTN: UPDATES with White House's response in paras 10-11)
By Kim Soo-yeon and Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Thursday it will take the "toughest reaction" to the U.S. move to expand joint military exercises with South Korea, as the U.S. defense chief has pledged to deploy more strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula to ensure its security commitment.
The North's warning came as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Seoul earlier this week for talks with his South Korean counterpart and said there would be more deployments of strategic assets, including F-22 and F-35 jets, to Korea in order to deter the North's evolving military threats.
Pyongyang's foreign ministry claimed the United States has been driving the security situation on the peninsula toward an "extreme red-line" and is pushing to spur further tensions through joint military drills of larger scale and scope with South Korea.
"This is a vivid expression of the U.S. dangerous scenario which will result in turning the Korean Peninsula into a huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone," it said in an English-language statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
North Korea will "take the toughest reaction" to any military action by the U.S. under the principle of "nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation," it added.
"If the U.S. continues to introduce strategic assets into the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding area, the DPRK will make clearer its deterring activities without fail according to their nature," it read, using the acronym of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The North said it is ready to counter any military challenges from the U.S. with the "most overwhelming nuclear force," while stressing it is not interested in any dialogue with the U.S. as long as Washington pursues a "hostile policy."
Hours earlier, South Korea and the U.S. staged combined air drills, involving B-1B strategic bombers, as well as F-22 and F-35B stealth fighters, from the U.S. Air Force, in a show of Washington's "will and capabilities" to provide credible extended deterrence against North Korea's military threats.
In a related move, the allies plan to hold discussion-based table-top exercises this month to sharpen extended deterrence. Extended deterrence refers to the U.S.' commitment to use a full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear, to defend its ally.
The White House, meanwhile, said it has no hostile intent toward Pyongyang, rejecting its claim that the allies' joint military exercises are provocative.
"We have made clear we have no hostile intent toward the DPRK and seek serious and sustained diplomacy to address the full range of issues of concern to both countries and the region," a spokesperson for the National Security Council stated.
North Korea launched around 70 ballistic missiles last year alone, the most in a single year, amid persistent speculation it may conduct a nuclear test in the near future.
The North's leader Kim Jong-un called for an "exponential" increase in its nuclear arsenal and the need to mass-produce tactical nuclear weapons at a key party meeting held late last year.
North Korea is likely to hold a military parade next Wednesday to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its armed forces in a bid to flex its military muscle.
In response to the North's statement, Seoul's unification ministry reiterated calls for the North to refrain from taking provocative acts and return to the dialogue table.
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