SEOUL South Korea on Friday rejected a call from the reclusive North to halt "provocative" military drills with the United States, saying that as a democracy it did not launch preemptive strikes.
North Korea traditionally demands the South to call off the drills, scheduled for February and March this year, labeling them as a prelude to invasion, but this year it also suggested both sides take steps to ease tension, including a moratorium on mutual verbal attacks.
"The Key Resolve and the Foal Eagle exercises will go ahead as scheduled ... (South Korea) is a democratic country so we do not engage in preemptive strikes," South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said at a briefing.
Tension soared early last year as Pyongyang reacted angrily to tightened U.N. sanctions imposed in response to its latest nuclear test. North Korea said it would retaliate against any hostile moves by striking at the United States, Japan and South Korea, triggering months of fiery rhetoric.
South Korea also said the North's latest demand, carried in a long statement issued by its National Defence Commission, was disingenuous, as it insulted the South even while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for improved ties.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, told a daily news briefing that improving relations accorded with the interests of both countries.
"We hope both sides can mutually express good intentions, adopt practical measures to improve relations between the north and south, and make efforts to push development of the regional situation in a stable direction," Hong said.
The two Koreas have yet to come up with any substantial measures to reduce military tension on the world's last Cold War frontier.
More than 60 years since the end of 1950-53 Korean War, the two sides remain technically at war as the conflict ended with an armistice rather than a treaty.
But analysts say the North cannot risk igniting a conventional military conflict it would almost certainly lose.
Many North Korea watchers believe it could instead launch another long-range rocket or push ahead with a nuclear test. It has conducted three nuclear tests, the last one in February last year.
The North could also stage another artillery attack on South Korean territory as it did in 2010, and risk provoking a military response from Seoul that could trigger a wider conflict.
The North's rocket launches are banned under U.N. resolutions because they are viewed as part of a process of proving the technology for an intercontinental nuclear weapon.
Kim, who took power two years ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, has pursued his father's military policies, including those aimed at obtaining nuclear strike capacity.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park, Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Jack Kim, Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)