North Korea said Tuesday it would strengthen its atomic arsenal in an angry response to upcoming joint US-South Korean military exercises which the communist state denounced as nuclear war games.
The North justified its possession of nuclear weapons as establishing a balance of power to prevent a nuclear holocaust, ahead of the joint war games in South Korea starting Saturday.
"The exercises will be nuclear war exercises aimed to invade the North to all intents and purposes in view of their nature, scope and contents," a foreign ministry spokesman told the official Korean Central News Agency.
"The DPRK (North Korea) will take necessary counter-measures including the bolstering of its nuclear arsenal to cope with the extremely hostile attempt of the US to bring down the system in the DPRK though it is the Korean people's own choice," he said.
"The reality testifies to the fact that the DPRK's nuclear weapons serve as powerful deterrent to keep the equilibrium of forces in the region, avert a new war and ensure peace."
The week-long military drills come amid diplomatic efforts to bring Pyongyang back into six-nation talks aimed at persuading it to give up its nuclear weapons program.
They coincide with the arrival here Saturday of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a three-nation North East Asia tour to discuss the nuclear standoff.
North Korea declared on February 10 it had nuclear weapons and withdrew indefinitely from the disarmament talks due to "hostile" US policy.
The Stalinist state has since sent mixed signals on its willingness to return to the talks, with its leader Kim Jong-Il saying Pyongyang would resume dialogue if "conditions" are met.
North Korean Premier Pak Pong-ju will visit China from March 22-27 to discuss the nuclear standoff, China's foreign ministry announced Tuesday.
Washington believes North Korea possesses one or two crude bombs and may have reprocessed enough plutonium from spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear complex for half a dozen more.
The two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan have met three times to try to resolve the nuclear standoff that erupted in 2002 when the United States accused the North of operating a secret uranium-enrichment program.
The talks made little progress, with the final round held in June 2004. North Korea boycotted a fourth round scheduled for September last year.
The North says the US-South Korean military drills are a rehearsal for a preemptive nuclear attack while officials in Seoul and Washington have said they are defense-oriented to cement the military alliance.
North Korea's state media said Sunday that the exercises could turn into "an actual war" and demanded they be called off.
A US naval battle group led by the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier arrived on Monday in Busan, 450 kilometers (280 miles) south of Seoul, to take part in the exercises.
The drills from March 19-25, involve mock battles aimed at evaluating command capabilities with US and South Korean troops mobilized for anti-commando operations and computer war games.
Some 32,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea to help deter aggression from communist North Korea's 1.1-million-strong army, alongside about 650,000 South Korean troops.
US forces have remained in the south since the 1950-1953 Korean War.