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North Korea again threatens nuclear strikes on US and South Korea

North Korea has threatened nuclear strikes on the US and South Korea, this time in reaction to the start of huge joint military drills by the two countries.

Belligerent threats have been a staple of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but they spike especially when Washington and Seoul stage what they say are annual defensive springtime war games.

Pyongyang says the drills, which will run until the end of April, are invasion rehearsals.

Always ragged relations between North Korea and its rivals have worsened after Pyongyang's nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket test last month.

The United Nations has slapped the North with harsh sanctions, and South Korea has taken a harder than usual line on the North.

The North's powerful National Defence Commission threatened strikes against targets in the South, US bases in the Pacific and the US mainland, saying its enemies "are working with bloodshot eyes to infringe upon the dignity, sovereignty and vital rights" of North Korea.

"If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment," the North's statement said.

There is considerable debate about whether North Korea is even capable of the kind of "strikes" it threatens. The North makes progress with each new nuclear test but many experts say its arsenal may consist only of still-crude nuclear bombs. There's uncertainty about whether they have mastered the miniaturisation process needed to mount bombs on warheads and widespread doubt about whether they have a reliable long-range missile that could deliver such a bomb to the US mainland.

But North Korea's rhetoric raises unease in Seoul and its US ally, not least because of the huge number of troops and weaponry facing off along the world's most heavily armed border, which is an hour's drive from the South Korean capital and its 10 million residents.

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.

South Korea's military says this year's war games will be the largest ever staged, involving 300,000 South Korean military personnel and 17,000 from the US. Analysts say one part of North Korea's traditional anger over the drills is that they force the impoverished country to respond with its own costly war games.

Responding to the North's threat, South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said North Korea must refrain from a "rash act that brings destruction upon itself".

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