North Korea has escalated its fiery rhetoric about the imminent use of nuclear weapons days after a US soldier was taken into custody for crossing the border into South Korea.
The country’s defense minister Kang Sun Nam has said it would approve the use of nuclear weapons “in the event that a nuclear strike is launched against it or it is judged that the use of nuclear weapons is imminent,” state news agency KCNA reported Thursday.
The warning came after 23-year-old Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King fled across the border on Tuesday while touring the Joint Security Zone, a UN-administered area between the north and south.
North Korea has so far remained silent on King’s status.
The isolated communist nation has long threatened to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles in self-defense against what it calls active plans by the West to launch an attack on it.
US and South Korean military leaders met on Tuesday to discuss their joint response in the event of a North Korean attack, their talks coinciding with the arrival of a nuclear-armed US ballistic missile submarine in the south for the first time since the 1980s.
Pyongyang said the meeting was a clear provocation and a prelude to a Western strike, whose plans have entered “the most critical phase” making war on the Korean peninsula “a dangerous reality”.
“In particular, the hostile forces posed the most undisguised and immediate nuclear threat to the DPRK by bringing an Ohio-class strategic nuclear submarine to the Pusan port base of operations, which means strategic nuclear weapons have been deployed to the Korean Peninsula for the first time in 40 years,” said Kang’s statement, who uses acronyms to refer to the north by its formal name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea regularly conducts ballistic missile tests, the most recent being last week when the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, pledged to bolster its nuclear deterrence capabilities.
King’s fate, meanwhile, remains unclear.
Defense Department spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Wednesday that the US has been in contact with Sweden, through which country Washington maintains embassy-level relations with North Korea, but has received no response.
Previous defectors, such as Charles Jenkins, a then 24-year-old Army sergeant who crossed the border in 1965, were treated as propaganda tools and remained in North Korea for years before being trafficked back to the US
Jenkins wanted to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam, while there are no signs of similar objections from King, who had been in legal trouble in South Korea.
It emerged on Thursday that he spent 48 days in a prison in Cheonan, a city about 50 miles south of South Korea’s capital Seoul, after failing to pay a $4,000 fine on charges including damaging public property.
According to legal documents, King was uncooperative when officers arrested him in October after he caused hundreds of dollars in damage to a police patrol car while shouting profanity about Koreans and the Korean military.
The last American to cross into North Korea, Bruce Byron Lowrance, was released a month after illegally entering the country through China in 2018.
That came after then-President Donald Trump held a joint summit with Kim promising to end the country’s nuclear escalation.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com