SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Ratcheting up the rhetoric, North Korea warned early Thursday that its military has been cleared to wage an attack on the U.S. using "smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear" weapons.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, said in Washington that it will deploy a missile defense system to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam to strengthen regional protection against a possible attack from North Korea. The defense secretary said the U.S. was seeking to defuse the situation.
Despite the rhetoric, analysts say they do not expect a nuclear attack by North Korea, which knows the move could trigger a destructive, suicidal war that no one in the region wants.
The strident warning from Pyongyang is latest in a series of escalating threats from North Korea, which has railed for weeks against joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises taking place in South Korea and has expressed anger over tightened sanctions for a February nuclear test.
Following through on one threat Wednesday, North Korean border authorities refused to allow entry to South Koreans who manage jointly run factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
Washington calls the military drills, which this time have incorporated fighter jets and nuclear-capable stealth bombers, routine annual exercises between the allies. Pyongyang calls them rehearsals for a northward invasion.
The foes fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. The divided Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war six decades later, and Washington keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington was doing all it can to defuse the situation, echoing comments a day earlier by Secretary of State John Kerry.
"Some of the actions they've taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger and threat to the interests, certainly of our allies, starting with South Korea and Japan and also the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States," Hagel said Wednesday.