North Korea warns South and US over 'provocative' drills

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea has demanded South Korea and the United States halt their annual military drills due in February and March, saying they were a direct provocation to Pyongyang, in a statement that suggested a re-run of a sharp escalation in tensions last year.

In 2013, Pyongyang said it would retaliate against any hostile moves by striking at the United States, Japan and South Korea, triggering a military buildup on the Korean peninsula and months of fiery rhetoric.

The reclusive North has regularly charged that annual drills such as "Key Resolve" and "Ulchi-Freedom-Guardian" staged by South Korea and United States are a prelude to invasion.

"We sternly warn the US and the South Korean authorities to stop the dangerous military exercises which may push the situation on the peninsula and the north-south ties to a catastrophe," state news agency KCNA quoted a body in charge of the North's efforts to promote Korean unification as saying.

Similar bellicose rhetoric from the North set South Korea, the United States and Japan on edge a year ago. As a result, Washington flew Stealth bomber missions over South Korea and strengthened its military presence in the South.

Analysts say the North cannot risk igniting a conventional military conflict it would almost certainly lose.

Many North Korea watchers believe the isolated country could instead launch another long-range rocket or push ahead with a nuclear test.

The North could also stage another artillery attack on South Korean territory as it did in 2010, and risk provoking a military response from Seoul that could trigger a wider conflict.

The North's rocket launches are banned under United Nations sanctions because they are viewed as part of a process of proving the technology for an intercontinental nuclear weapon.

Its nuclear programme has also been sanctioned.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took power two years ago, has pursued his father's military policies, including those aimed at obtaining nuclear strike capacity.