SEOUL — South Korea and the United States should pay a price for going ahead with annual joint military drills due to begin this week, Kim Yo Jong, a powerful North Korean official and sister of leader Kim Jong Un, said on Tuesday.
South Korea and the United States began preliminary training on Tuesday and larger, computer-simulated exercises are scheduled for next week, military sources told Reuters.
The nuclear-armed North's reaction to the drills also threatens to upend efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to reopen a joint liaison office that Pyongyang blew up last year and to hold a summit as part of efforts to restore relations.
Kim Yo Jong said in a statement carried by North Korean state news agency KCNA that the exercises were an "act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid as they threaten the safety of our people and further imperil the situation on the Korean peninsula."
"They are the most vivid expression of the U.S. hostile policy towards (North Korea), designed to stifle our state by force," she said.
She accused South Korea of "perfidious behavior" for going ahead with the drills just weeks after agreeing to reopen the hotline.
U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Martin Meiners declined to comment on the North Korean statement and said it was against policy to comment on training.
"Combined training events are a ROK-U.S. bilateral decision, and any decisions will be a mutual agreement," he said, using the initials of South Korea's official name.
A spokesman for South Korea's defence ministry declined to comment on the preliminary drills during a briefing on Tuesday, and said the two countries were still discussing the timing, scale and method of the regular exercises.
South Korea's unification ministry, which handles relations with the North, said in a statement that it would not speculate on North Korea's intentions but would prepare for all possibilities.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Pyongyang might be trying to secure an upper hand in future talks with South Korea and the United States.
"Though (Kim) mentioned 'perfidious behavior,' her tone seemed relatively restrained as she didn't threaten specific actions they might take, unlike in the past," he said.
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The United States stations around 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace deal, leaving the peninsula in a technical state of war.
The exercises have been scaled back in recent years to facilitate talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs in return for U.S. sanctions relief.
But the negotiations collapsed in 2019, and while both North Korea and the United States say they are open to diplomacy, both also say it is up to the other side to take action.
Kim said U.S. military actions showed that Washington's talk of diplomacy is a hypocritical cover for aggression on the peninsula, and that peace would only be possible if the United States dismantled its military force in the South.
North Korea would boost its "deterrent of absolute capacity," including for "powerful preemptive strike," to counter the ever-increasing U.S. military threat, she said.