North Korea says U.S. drills threaten to turn region into 'critical war zone'

·4 min read

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korea said on Thursday that drills by the United States and its allies have reached an "extreme red-line" and threaten to turn the peninsula into a "huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone."

The Foreign Ministry statement, carried by state news agency KCNA, said Pyongyang was not interested in dialogue as long as Washington pursues hostile policies.

"The military and political situation on the Korean peninsula and in the region has reached an extreme red-line due to the reckless military confrontational manoeuvres and hostile acts of the U.S. and its vassal forces," an unnamed ministry spokesperson said in the statement.

It cited a visit to Seoul this week by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. On Tuesday, Austin and his South Korean counterpart vowed to expand military drills and deploy more "strategic assets," such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, to counter North Korea's weapons development and prevent a war.

"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," the North Korean statement said.

The United States has pushed to expand military, political, and economic ties across Asia.

In Manila on Thursday, Austin and his counterpart there announced that the Philippines had granted the United States expanded access to its military bases amid mounting concern over China's increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea and tensions over self-ruled Taiwan.

When asked about the tensions with North Korea during his stop in the Philippines, Austin said that the U.S. goal was to promote greater security and stability and that it remained committed to defending South Korea.

"We will continue to work alongside our allies and train and ensure that we maintain credible and ready forces," he said.

North Korea said it would respond to any military moves by the United States, and had strong counteraction strategies, including "the most overwhelming nuclear force" if necessary.

JOINT DRILLS

On Wednesday, the United States and South Korea carried out a joint air drill with American B-1B heavy bombers and F-22 stealth fighters, as well as F-35 jets from both countries, according to South Korea's Defense Ministry.

"The combined air drills this time show the U.S.' will and capabilities to provide strong and credible extended deterrence against North Korea's nuclear and missile threats," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

In Washington, the White House rejected the North Korean statement and reiterated a willingness to meet with North Korean diplomats "at a time and place convenient for them."

"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," said a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, refering to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.

More than 28,500 American troops are based in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

"We reject the notion that our joint exercises with partners in the region serve as any sort of provocation. These are routine exercises fully consistent with past practice," the White House statement said.

Last year, North Korea conducted a record number of ballistic missile tests, which are banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions. It was also observed reopening its shuttered nuclear weapons test site, raising expectations of a nuclear test for the first time since 2017.

In New York, South Korea's foreign minister, Park Jin, met with the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday and called for the U.N.'s continued attention to North Korea's recent provocations and efforts to implement sanctions on the reclusive regime.

Guterres said any resumption of nuclear testing by North Korea would deal a devastating blow to regional and international security, and reaffirmed support to build lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, according to Park's office.

Park is on a four-day trip to the United States, which will include a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Friday.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul, Steve Holland in Washington, and Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Berkrot, Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie)