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, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a senior government official, warned on Tuesday.
The exercises are 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,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement carried by North Korean state news agency KCNA.
“They are the most vivid expression of the US hostile policy towards [North Korea], designed to stifle our state by force,” she said.
Accusing the South of “perfidious behaviour”, Kim said that North Korea will step up efforts to strengthen its preemptive strike capabilities, adding that she had been delegated authority to release the statement, implying the message came directly from her brother.
South Korea and the US began preliminary training on Tuesday with larger, computer-simulated exercises are scheduled for next week.
The drills, expected to take place from August 16 to 26, have led to increased tensions on the peninsula after a sudden thaw saw Seoul and Pyongyang agree in July to reconnect a hotline that Pyongyang cut last year.
Hours after Kim’s remarks, North Korea did not answer routine calls on inter-Korean hotlines, South Korea’s unification and defence ministries said on Tuesday afternoon. The two Koreas typically check in over the hotlines twice a day, and North Korean officials answered morning calls as usual on hotlines maintained by South Korea’s military as well as on those used by the unification ministry, which handles relations with the North.
The nuclear-armed North’s reaction could potentially disrupt 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.
A spokesman for South Korea’s defence ministry declined to comment on the preliminary drills, on Tuesday saying 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.
US Department of Defense spokesman Martin Meiners also declined to comment on the North Korean statement and said it was against policy to speak on training.
“Combined training events are a ROK-US bilateral decision, and any decisions will be a mutual agreement,” he said, using the initials of South Korea’s official name.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says the statement might be an attempt to secure the upper hand in future talks with South Korea and the US.
“Though [Kim] mentioned ‘perfidious behaviour,’ her tone seemed relatively restrained as she didn’t threaten specific actions they might take, unlike in the past,” he said.
The US has about 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 programmes in return for US sanctions relief.
But the negotiations collapsed in 2019, and while both North Korea and the US say they are open to diplomacy, both also say it is up to the other side to take action.