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A picture released by the North Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean soldiers during combat training at an undisclosed location, on March 6, 2013.

By Chico Harlan, Thursday, March 7, 7:16 AM

SEOUL — North Korea on Thursday threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States and other purported aggressors, describing Washington as a “criminal threatening global peace.”

Although Pyongyang routinely vows to demolish the United States in a sacred war, the threat issued Thursday marked a major escalation of rhetoric just hours before the U.N. Security Council is to discuss new sanctions aiming at reining in the North’s weapons program and restricting illicit overseas trade.

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Calling the sanctions part of a U.S.-led “war of aggression,” the North vowed to “display the might . . . it built up decades after decades and put an end to the evil cycle of tension,” according to a statement published by the nation’s state-run news agency and attributed to a foreign ministry spokesman.

Long East Asia’s main menace, North Korea often becomes particularly combative in the run-up to and aftermath of U.N. sanctions. The isolated police state, in its state-controlled media, typically describes the sanctions as a thinly veiled effort by larger nations to cause its collapse, playing to a national narrative that says it must build up its army to defend sovereignty.

“If the enemy comes at us with a dagger,” the North said in a separate Thursday editorial in its state-run newspaper, “we’ll draw out a big sword to slice him in pieces, [and] if he comes with a rifle we’ll turn a big gun to blow him off, and if he threatens with nuke, we’ll face up to him with more powerful and accurate nuke strike means of our own.”

Security analysts do not yet think the North has the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon, although the country is making progress after pouring billions into its weapons program and cooperating with Iran and Pakistan. The North has fissile material for bombs, and it succeeded last December in launching a long-range rocket into orbit. But countries typically need years of testing before engineers can mount a small nuclear warhead on a rocket with the confidence that it will hit its intended target.

For the North, conducting such tests are a problem because it is banned by existing sanctions from every kind of launch, blast or boom. Since 2006, the country has followed a pattern where nuclear or rocket tests bring sanctions, and the North then uses those sanctions as an excuse to carry out further tests. Nothing about the pattern has changed under new leader Kim Jong Eun, who inherited power in December, 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

The North’s statement Thursday about a preemptive nuclear strike came with a faint caveat. The Korean-language version suggested that the North would only carry out such a strike against “invaders,” meaning only if another nation breached its borders. But the English-language version of the statement says the strike will be carried out against “aggressors,” a more subjective term.

“So there’s some nuance in there,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based security expert for the International Crisis Group. “It’s not like a barge is going to float up the Potomac and a nuke will go off. Still, it’s problematic. . . . This says something about their doctrine with nuclear weapons. It says, ‘If we’re invaded with conventional weapons, we will respond with nuclear strikes.’ ”

The latest U.N. resolution, which diplomats will likely put to vote on Thursday, was drafted by the United States and China. The participation of Beijing is significant because it has long been the North’s key benefactor and has occasionally has stood in the way of international efforts to sanction Pyongyang. A draft of the latest resolution names several new individuals and business entities that will be targeted by sanctions.

“The sanctions [up for vote] will significantly impede North Korea’s ability to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “These sanctions — as well as a commitment to take further significant measures in the event of another launch or nuclear test — will demonstrate clearly to North Korea the continued costs of its provocations.”

The latest sanctions come in response to a Feb. 12 underground test of what the North described as a miniaturized nuclear weapon.

In recent days, North Korea has threatened to nullify the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and cut off a hotline at the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas. A North Korean army spokesman also said his soldiers would become “human bullets and bombs” to protect the country’s central leadership and the “dignity of the respected Marshal Kim Jong Eun.”

Tens of thousands in Pyongyang on Thursday protested the potential sanctions and ongoing U.S.-South Korea joint war exercises, according to the Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang.


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