The communist nation of North Korea threatened this morning to launch a pre-emptive strike, after accusing the United States of using military drills in South Korea as preparation for its own nuclear strike.
The United Nations Security Council slapped new sanctions on North Korea over its latest nuclear test hours after Pyongyang threatened to exercise its "right to a pre-emptive nuclear attack" Thursday.
"Now that the U.S. is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war, the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK will exercise the right to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country," the North's foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency. "The U.S. is massively deploying armed forces for aggression, including nuclear carrier task force and strategic bombers, enough to fight a nuclear war under the smokescreen of 'annual drills'."
Later on Thursday, the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions aimed at North Korea's financial transactions and illicit cargo shipments, and its criminal activities such as drugs and counterfeiting.
After the vote, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the "entire world stands united in our commitment to the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and in our demand that North Korea complies with its international obligations."
White House spokesman Jay Carney addresses reported nuclear threats made by North Korea on Thursday.
The vote was passed unanimously by the 15 members of the Security Council, including China, the North's one major diplomatic ally.
China’s ambassador to the U.N., Li Baodong, said China hoped to see the resumption of diplomacy to try to reduce tensions.
"We need wisdom, we need persistence, perseverance, we need teamwork … to bring down the heat," Li said. "This is our focus."
South Korea’s envoy Kim Sook said North Korea choosing the wrong path could lead to its "self-destruction."
"We all have seen (today's) announcement coming out of Pyongyang, which is very hostile," he said.
Responding to questions about Pyongyang's threat to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear attack, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that "DPRK will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to achieve peace and stability," in the region. He added: "I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack."
KCNA via EPA
North Korean soldiers cheer during combat training at an undisclosed location on Wednesday.
Earlier, a spokesman for South Korea's defense ministry told Reuters that the military was "watching the North's activities and stepping up readiness."
On Wednesday, the South Korean military said it would strike back at North Korea and target its top leadership if Pyongyang attacks.
Tensions have ratcheted higher across the Korean Peninsula since the North, under youthful leader Kim Jong Un who took office just over a year ago after the death of his father, launched a long-range rocket last December. He followed this with a third nuclear test on February 12.
Earlier in the week, Pyongyang threatened to end the 60-year truce that ended the Korean war.
Angus Walker, a Beijing-based correspondent with NBC News' partner ITV News, said the current consensus was that North Korea did not have a missile that was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
"There is always a lot of saber-rattling when the U.S. and South Korea stage large-scale military exercises," he said.
North Korea continues military drills and exercises in support of a top general's threat to back military action against South Korea and the United States. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.
The North does have smaller missiles, as seen during military parades, and South Korea's capital Seoul is within artillery range.
While the North has in the past threatened to hit Seoul with a "rain of fire," claiming it can launch 250,000 artillery shells in an hour at the South Korean capital, the reality is that those artillery batteries could be destroyed very quickly, Walker said.
War-game scenarios have suggested that a war on the peninsula would be over quickly, with the North under U.S. and South Korean control within 24 hours, he said.
However, Walker suggested the nightmare scenarios are that the North could somehow get a truck-loaded device into the South or launch a "dirty bomb" in an artillery shell.
Earlier this week, the Korea Economic Institute warned that Pyongyang could "certainly inflict serious damage along the Southern side of the [demilitarized zone] in the event of a surprise attack" using artillery.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice describes approved sanctions against North Korea relating to the country's latest nuclear test.
Taken together, North Korea’s forward deployed long-range artillery could launch as many as 20,000 shells an hour at downtown Seoul ... However, it is important to underscore that these are best-case figures (from North Korea’s military point of view) and in all reality, performance and frequency of the bombardment would be much lower than the numbers detailed above.
...300 artillery pieces in direct range of Seoul is of course a serious concern for allied commanders. A “sea of fire” might not be the result in case of their use, but it is evident that tens of thousands of civilians could die and even more injured if they were used in an indiscriminate way.
The Korea Economic Institute also pointed out that North Korea "reportedly has chemical munitions" that could be fired using artillery. In 2011, Pyongyang reportedly had 1.2 military personnel at its disposal.
The youngest son of Kim Jong Il succeeded his late father in 2011, becoming the third member of his family to rule the unpredictable and reclusive communist state.
Seoul-based analyst Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director with the International Crisis Group, said North Korea’s comments were "a little bit more serious" than its usual hostile rhetoric. He said Pyongyang appeared to see the moves to impose further sanctions on North Korea as similar to the preludes to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pinkston said President Barack Obama should respond by stressing there was no intention to invade North Korea. But he also said the president should warn North Korea that if it "were ever to use nuclear weapons it would be your complete destruction and all the leadership would perish."
Pinkston said it would be suicide for North Korea to launch a nuclear attack, and doubted it would do so. But he added "some kind of miscalculation" was always possible.
He said the U.S. had to stay in a diplomatic "Goldilocks" zone: It had to appear strong to deter North Korean aggression, but not so strong that the regime decided an attack was imminent.
"I think displaying a formidable amount of force that’s credible and can impose huge costs on them, I think that gets their attention and they are more likely to behave themselves," Pinkston said.
NBC News staff writer Kari Huus, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Thu Mar 7, 2013 4:36 AM EST