SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea threatened South Korea with war Sunday after Seoul warned it would launch a pre-emptive strike if the North was preparing a nuclear attack — the latest salvo in a battle of rhetoric despite signs of improved cooperation across the militarized frontier.
"Our revolutionary armed forces will regard the scenario for 'pre-emptive strike,' which the South Korean puppet authorities adopted as a 'state policy,' as an open declaration of war," the General Staff of the Korean People's Army said in a statement carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
The North's warning came in response to the South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young's remarks last week that the South should launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea if there was a clear indication the country was preparing a nuclear attack.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae dismissed the North's statement Sunday as a predictable reaction.
Kim made similar remarks in 2008 when he was chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, prompting North Korea to threaten South Korea with destruction.
Analysts in South Korea said the North's latest statement reflected its intolerance of any challenge to its own security and the authoritarian regime leader Kim Jong Il but that the war of words was unlikely to derail attempts to improve relations.
"The North has sent a clear message that it was ready for cooperation with South Korea, but it won't tolerate it if South Korea touches on the prestige of its leader or its system," said analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.
The North's isolated communist regime has reached out to the U.S. and South Korea in recent months in what could be an attempt to ease some of the pressure of U.N. sanctions imposed on the North after it conducted a nuclear test last year, its second to date.
North Korea quit international talks on ending its nuclear programs in April last year, but has indicated its willingness to return to international disarmament negotiations if the sanctions are lifted.
In a sign of the conflicting signals from Pyongyang, the North's military renewed in Sunday's statement the country's commitment to improve inter-Korean relations.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the South — led by a conservative government which has been more cautious in engaging Pyongyang than preceding more liberal administrations — was also giving mixed signals.
"South Korea appears to have not decided whether to grab the hand of North Korea's conciliatory gestures," Koh said.
Last week, the two Koreas held talks on developing their joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong, the most prominent symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. On Friday, the North unexpectedly offered to hold discussions between military officers in Kaesong this Tuesday to discuss border crossings, customs, and the use of mobile phones and the Internet for South Korean companies in the complex.
South Korea plans to accept the North's demand for dialogue but ask Pyongyang to set another date as the two sides had already agreed to meet on Feb. 1 in Kaesong to discuss the complex.
"There is no reason to oppose the North's proposal and we plan to reply on Monday," a South Korean official said. He asked not to be identified because no official decision has been made yet.
More than 110 South Korean factories at Kaesong employ some 42,000 North Korean workers to make everything from electronics and watches to shoes and utensils, providing a major source of revenue for the cash-strapped North.