SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea accused President Barack Obama's government of meddling in its internal affairs Wednesday and vowed to take "every necessary measure" to defend itself against what it calls U.S. threats.
The statement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry, however, was far less harsh than rhetoric issued by the country's military during the run-up to joint U.S.-South Korean war games that started across the South on Monday. The North's military has threatened South Korean passenger planes and put its troops on standby.
Still, the Foreign Ministry's statement was significant in that it was the agency's first on the U.S. since Obama's inauguration, an analyst said.
"The Foreign Ministry is Washington's direct negotiating partner and has not engaged in criticizing the U.S. so far," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "This means they have started expressing pent-up complaints."
However, the ministry's less strident tone than other agencies reflects Pyongyang's willingness for negotiation, Kim said.
"The new administration of the U.S. is now working hard to infringe upon the sovereignty" of North Korea "by force of arms," the statement said. It accused Obama's government of "letting loose a whole string of words and deeds little short of getting on the nerves of the (North) and seriously interfering in its internal affairs."
The statement did not elaborate on the alleged meddling, but Pyongyang has rejected demands from the U.S. and neighboring governments that it drop a missile launch plan, claiming it has the right to send off a satellite as part of its space program.
The North may also have been referring to comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month over a potential power struggle to replace North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is believed to have suffered a stroke last year.
The North's statement also called the annual military drills in South Korea "war exercises designed to mount a pre-emptive attack" on the North. It said the country "will take every necessary measure to protect its sovereignty." It did not specify what the measures would be.
North Korea has long claimed that annual exercises are rehearsals for an invasion. Seoul and Washington say the drills are purely defensive.
The 12-day maneuvers, involving 26,000 U.S. troops and an unspecified number of South Korean soldiers, include live-fire drills. The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis arrived Wednesday at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan for the exercises.
On Monday, the North cut off a military hot line with the South citing the drills, causing a complete shutdown of their border and stranding hundreds of South Koreans working in a joint industrial zone in the North. Pyongyang reopened the border Tuesday, but the hot line remains suspended.
Tensions on the divided peninsula have also been running high amid fears that Pyongyang might be trying to test-fire a long-range missile capable of reaching U.S. territory.
The North claims what it is trying to launch is a satellite as part of its peaceful space program, and vowed to retaliate against any one seeking to shoot it down.
In Washington, U.S. national intelligence director Dennis Blair said he believes the North is trying to launch a satellite, but said the technology is no different from that of a long-range missile and its success would mean the communist nation is capable of striking the mainland U.S.
"I tend to believe that the North Koreans announced that they would do a space launch and that's what they intend," U.S. national intelligence director Dennis Blair said before a senate panel Tuesday.
"If a three stage space launch vehicle works, then that could reach not only Alaska and Hawaii but part of what the Hawaiians call the mainland and what the Alaskans call the lower forty-eight," he said.
U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have warned Pyongyang not to launch either a satellite or missile — noting that both are the same in principle and differ only in payload.
North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted after the country's first-ever nuclear test blast in 2006.
Seoul's Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan renewed the warning that any launch would violate the U.N. resolution. "It's not that a satellite is OK and a missile is not," Yu told reporters.