North Korea is exchanging sharply worded threats with South Korea in the run-up to Washington's annual joint military exercises with Seoul.
On Wednesday, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea warned the bilateral drills could plunge inter-Korean relations "into a deadlock and unimaginable holocaust," the Yonhap News Agency reported.
The U.S.-South Korean joint maneuvers Key Resolve and Foal Eagle this year will occur between late February and April. Pyongyang routinely condemns the drills. Last year Pyongyang took its anger to new levels, making repeated threats of launching nuclear-armed missiles against the two countries and going so far as to deploy ballistic missiles to its east coast.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok on Thursday said, "If North Korea actually commits military aggression at the excuse of what is a normal exercise we conduct as preparation for emergency, our military will mercilessly and decisively punish them," Reuters reported.
Concerned about the threat of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction, several dozen South Korean and U.S. officials met this week in Hawaii for two days of brainstorming on how to more effectively tailor their shared deterrence strategies.
The bilateral Extended Deterrence Policy Committee staged a tabletop exercise devised to give officials a chance to think through a range of potential joint responses to a nuclear emergency on the Korean Peninsula, according to a U.S. Defense Department press release.
Meanwhile, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his new autobiography revealed that Washington had to talk Seoul out of launching a retaliatory strike when one of its border islands was attacked by North Korea in November 2010, Agence France-Presse reported.
The shelling of Yeonpyeong island created a "very dangerous crisis," with Seoul determined to respond with airstrikes and artillery attacks on the North, according to the Gates memoir.
The United States was concerned that if South Korea sharply retaliated, it could cause a disastrous military escalation in the region. Multiple phone calls by President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were made to their South Korean opposites in a bid to convince the former Lee Myung-bak administration not to attack the North.
"Ultimately, South Korea simply returned artillery fire on the location of the North Koreans' batteries that had started the whole affair," Gates said.