North Korea says U.S. drills risk turning region into ‘key war zone’

  • North Korea says no interest in talks if U.S. remains hostile
  • Statement warns of response to any U.S. military action
  • U.S., South Korean fighter jets conduct drills on Wednesday
  • Allies say drills needed to deter North Korea

SEOUL, Feb 2 (Reuters) – North Korea’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that exercises by the United States and its allies had pushed the situation to an “extreme red line” and threatened to turn the peninsula into “a huge war arsenal and a more critical theater.”

A statement carried by North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said Pyongyang was not interested in dialogue as long as Washington pursued a hostile policy.

“The military and political situation on the Korean peninsula and the region has reached an extreme red line due to reckless military confrontation exercises and hostile actions by the United States and its vassal forces,” a foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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

“We have made it clear that we have no hostility toward North Korea and seek serious and sustained diplomacy to address all issues of concern to both countries and the region,” a White House National Security Council spokesman said.

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The North Korean statement cited U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Seoul this week. On Tuesday, Austin and his South Korean counterpart vowed to expand military exercises and deploy more “strategic assets” such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers to counter North Korea’s weapons development and prevent war.

“This is a vivid manifestation of a dangerous scenario for the United States that will lead to the Korean peninsula becoming a huge war arsenal and an even more dangerous war zone,” the North Korean statement said.

The statement added that North Korea would respond to any U.S. military action and had a strong countermeasure strategy, including using “the most overwhelming nuclear force” if necessary.

Asked about tensions with North Korea during a stop in the Philippines on Thursday, Austin said the U.S. goal is to promote greater security and stability and that it remains committed to defending South Korea.

“We will continue to fight alongside our allies to train and ensure we maintain a credible and ready force,” he said.

More than 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 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 are provocative in any way. These routine exercises are fully in line with past practice,” the White House statement said.

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

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin met U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York on Wednesday and called on the U.N. to stay focused on North Korea’s latest provocations and work to impose sanctions on the reclusive regime.

According to Park Geun-hye’s office, Guterres said North Korea’s resumption of nuclear testing would be a devastating blow to regional and international security, and reiterated its support for a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.

Park Geun-hye is on a four-day visit to the United States, which includes a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Washington on Friday.

The United States and South Korea conducted joint air drills Wednesday with American B-1B heavy bombers and F-22 stealth fighter jets, as well as the two countries’ F-35 jets, according to South Korea’s defense ministry.

“This joint air exercise demonstrates the United States’ willingness and ability to provide a strong and credible extended deterrent to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

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 and Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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