November 30, 2017 / 9:16 AM / 18 days ago

Russia accuses U.S. of trying to provoke North Korean leader 'to fly off handle'

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia accused the United States on Thursday of trying to provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into “flying off the handle” over his missile program to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country.

In some of his most robust comments on the subject to date, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also flatly rejected a U.S. call to cut ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile program and said U.S. policy towards North Korea was deeply flawed.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have flared after North Korea said it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday in a “breakthrough” that put the U.S. mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.

Russia has condemned the test, like others before it, as “a provocation,” but Lavrov said the way the United States was handling the situation was dangerously provocative.

“The latest U.S. actions look designed to deliberately provoke Pyongyang into taking new extreme action,” Lavrov told reporters in Belarus, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry transcript.

Lavrov said he was referring to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises planned for December, which he said U.S. officials had intimated to Russia would not take place until spring to open a window for tensions to be defused.

“We were encouraged by that approach. And then suddenly ... they announced large-scale exercises in December. We have the impression that it was all done specially to get Kim Jong Un to ”fly off the handle“ and take another reckless step.”

The air forces of the United States and South Korea are scheduled to hold a regular joint drill early next month with six U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighters taking part.

“The Americans need to explain to us all if they want to find a pretext to destroy North Korea. Let them say it directly ... then we can take a decision about how to react,” said Lavrov.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Wednesday called for other countries to sever all ties with Pyongyang, including cutting trade links and expelling North Korean workers.

Moscow sells oil products to North Korea and thousands of North Korean workers toil in Russia, sending remittances back to the authorities in Pyongyang.

Lavrov said Haley’s call for the world to isolate North Korea was wrong.

“We regard this negatively,” Lavrov said. “We have already said many times that sanctions pressure has exhausted itself.”

He also complained that the United States was “totally ignoring” a U.N. demand for talks with North Korea.

“I think it’s a big mistake,” said Lavrov.

Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by

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