SEOUL North Korea's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday accused the United States of preparing for a war against the communist state in Pyongyang's first verbal criticism of the Obama Administration.
A ministry spokesman said military drills taking place between U.S. and South Korean forces were "nuclear war exercises designed to mount a preemptive attack on the DPRK." The DPRK is the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The comments came as Russia and China -- two of the North's few remaining allies -- said that they were also concerned about rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.
"The new administration of the U.S. is now working hard to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK by force of arms in collusion with the South Korean puppet bellicose forces," said a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, in comments carried by the North's official KCNA news agency.
"The DPRK, exposed to the potential threat of the U.S. and its allied forces, will take every necessary measure to protect its sovereignty," the unnamed spokesman added.
Since the inauguration of the South's conservative President Lee Myung-bak, the North has all but severed relations with its wealthy neighbor, and in recent weeks increasingly stepped up rhetoric against the United States.
The North Korean official said that inter-Korean relations had reached their worst phase and the situation had grown so tense that "a war may break out any moment due to the reckless policy of confrontation" pursued by South Korea.
The prickly North has turned increasingly strident in its rhetoric, putting its one-million-strong military on combat readiness over the exercises in the South and planning to launch a long-range missile in what several governments have said would be in contravention of U.N. sanctions.
Media reported last week that Japan and the United States might try to intercept any ballistic missile launched by the North.
The North says the rocket is part of a peaceful space programme and any attempt to shoot down its missile would be seen as an act of war.
North Korea on Monday said it had put its armed forces on full combat readiness in response to the start of the annual military exercises that have been held for years without incident. The drills end on March 20.
On Wednesday, U.S. aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis made a port call in the southern city of Busan to join the drills while a guided missile destroyer the USS Chafee was in the waters off the peninsula's east.
The commanding officer of the nuclear-powered carrier, Rear Admiral Mark A. Vance said the exercise and the participation of the fleet was not at all in response to the increased tensions surrounding the North's missile launch preparations.
RUSSIA, CHINA CONCERNED
Russia and China called on those involved "to show restraint and composure, and to refrain from any actions that could undermine security and stability in this region," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Tuesday.
Russia and China, together with South and North Korea, the United States and Japan are party to multilateral talks that began in 2003 on ending the North's nuclear arms programme.
Implementation of a key disarmament deal struck in 2005 has been held up as Pyongyang slowed the process of disabling its nuclear facilities while energy aid to the North in return for those steps also dried up in recent weeks.
The conservative South Korean government has stopped aid to the impoverished North after 10 years of no-questions-asked aid by Lee's liberal predecessors, angering Pyongyang's leaders.
After a day of suspending border processing on Monday, the communist North on Tuesday allowed South Koreans back into a lucrative factory just across the armed border.
Traffic and personnel flow across the heavily armed border continued as usual while the military hotline used to process the crossing remained cut from the North's side, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Jo Yong-hak in Busan and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)