For the second time in a matter of days, newly installed leader Kim Jong Un threatened Sunday to launch a powerful retaliatory strike against South Korea if provoked.
The most recent threat, carried by the North's state media, said Pyongyang's forces would deal harshly with any threat posed by Monday's scheduled kickoff of annual South Korean-U.S. military drills, which North Korea characterizes as a dress rehearsal to an invasion.
South Korean and U.S. officials insist that the 12-day drills, which they called computer-simulated war games, are defensive in nature.
North Korea's fiery response to the annual games has not changed from that of former leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December death from a heart attack. Analysts said his youngest son has continued his father's brash approach to the outside world as a way to rally support for the nation's military leaders.
But as foreign diplomats know, relations with North Korea are often a high-stakes game of one step forward, two steps back.
North Korea's most recent provocative claims came a day after a senior U.S. envoy said ties between the North Korea and South Korea must improve before Pyongyang and Washington can achieve real progress in their relationship.
According to the North's official Korean Central News Agency, the younger Kim, the supreme commander of the country's 1.2 million-member military, issued instructions to troops during a visit to front-line military units, including one that shelled a South Korean island in 2010.
"He ordered them to make a powerful retaliatory strike at the enemy, should the enemy intrude even 0.001 millimeter into the waters of the country where its sovereignty is exercised," the report said, not naming the date of Kim's visit to the troops.
North Korea has called the U.S.-South Korean drills part of a "new war of aggression," and the nation's National Defense Commission threatened Saturday to wage a "sacred war" over the exercises.
In November 2010, when Kim Jong Il was still alive, North Korea launched an artillery bombardment on the South that killed four South Koreans, raising fears of a bigger conflict on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea says the attack was triggered by South Korea's firing of artillery into its the North's waters; South Korea said the firing was only part of routine military exercises.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Protesters in Seoul rally against the annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Credit: Lee Jin-man / Associated Press