North Korea threatens nuclear strikes against South and US
North Korea has threatened to launch "indiscriminate" nuclear strikes against South Korea and the US mainland as the two allies began their largest-ever joint military exercises.
The order for a "pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice" was announced in a statement released by the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army, although analysts say smaller-scale attacks are far more likely over the duration of the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve manoeuvres, which conclude in late April.
"This is the wrong time for the North to attack," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, pointing out that the US has mobilised 15,000 troops for the drills while South Korea is fielding a further 300,000 personnel.
"Primarily, this declaration is for the domestic audience and it feeds into the rhetoric surrounding the sacrifices their citizens are having to make," he said.
Mr Pinkston said that should North Korea use nuclear weapons or launch a pre-emptive attack, "the retaliation would be absolutely devastating and everyone would support that response - even China and Russia".
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, said that a nuclear first-strike would be "suicide" for the regime of Kim Jong-un, although the young dictator does have a number of possible courses of action open to him.
"There is the possibility of cyber-attacks against targets in the South or further afield, as we have seen in the past, they could carry out artillery bombardments of the South's islands off the west coast of the peninsula, or they could arrest more American tourists and effectively hold them to ransom," Mr Dujarric said.
In February, state media showed footage of a tearful Frederick Otto Warmbier admitting to stealing a sign from his hotel in Pyongyang.
"There are many things the North can do that fall just short of the point at which they can expect to be on the receiving end of real retaliation", Mr Dujarric said.
Pyongyang's threats come just days after Mr Kim ordered his nation's military to put its nuclear arsenal to be placed on standby for use "at any moment", a response to tough new UN sanctions imposed two months after North Korea's fourth nuclear test and the launch in February of a rocket.
The rival Koreas' usual animosity occasionally erupts in bloody skirmishes - 50 South Koreans were killed in attacks in 2010 that Seoul blames on the North - and there is always a worry about an escalation of violence.
Always ragged relations between North Korea and its rivals Seoul and Washington have worsened following North Korea's nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket test last month that outsiders say was a test of banned ballistic missile technology.
The United Nations recently slapped the North with harsh sanctions, and South Korea has taken a harder than usual line, with a new North Korean human rights law and the president in Seoul warning of a collapsed government in Pyongyang.
South Korea says it will announce new unilateral sanctions today.
The US and South Korea have also begun formal talks on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD). After watching its northern neighbour perfect an array of ballistic missiles - and test four nuclear weapons -South Korea has asked America to provide the THAAD system to protect as much of the country as possible.
But the arrival of this highly sophisticated missile shield on the Korean Peninsula would change the military balance in East Asia. The THAAD system would not only be a safeguard against North Korea's nuclear arsenal, but against China's as well.
America has responded to China's protests by urging Beijing to rein in North Korea. (© Daily Telegraph, London)