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PYONGYANG, North Korea — A spokesman for North Korea's powerful National Defense Commission said Saturday that the United States must halt joint military drills under way in South Korea if it is serious about peace on the Korean peninsula.
Military officials convened a rare news conference at the People's Palace of Culture in Pyongyang to denounce the joint U.S.-South Korean war games as a threat to peace at a time when U.S. and North Korean officials are holding talks aimed at improving relations.
The U.S. and North Korea announced earlier in the week that Washington had agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid in exchange for a freeze of North Korea's nuclear activities. A U.S. envoy will meet with North Korean officials in Beijing on Wednesday to discuss the distribution of food, the State Department said.
The deal is seen as a first step toward resuming six-nation nuclear disarmament-for-aid talks suspended in 2009, and a tentative move toward improving the tense relationship between the wartime foes.
"Talks and military exercises are contradictory," Maj. Gen. Kwak Chol Hui, deputy director of the National Defense Commission's Policy Department, told the news conference in response to a question from The Associated Press. "If the U.S. really stands for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, it should stop the aggression-oriented war rehearsal and revise the hostile policy toward the DPRK."
DPRK stands for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The United States and South Korea say the military drills, which began Monday in the South and are to last through April, are routine exercises. The U.S. keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the three-year Korean War of the 1950s, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
North Korea sees the drills as preparation for war, and considers it an additional affront that they are being staged during the semiofficial 100-day mourning period following late leader Kim Jong Il's December death.
The Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army threatened "a merciless sacred war" against South Korea in a statement provided to the AP on Friday.
Across Pyongyang, vans mounted with speakers drove through the streets broadcasting the statement denouncing South Korea. The Korean Central News Agency reported that 1.7 million young North Koreans signed up for military service in a 24-hour period and that hundreds of thousands signed petitions calling for revenge. The figures could not be confirmed independently.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il's successor, son Kim Jong Un, visited the Strategic Rocket Force Command of the Korean People's Army, state media reported Saturday.
Kwak accused the U.S. of speaking of peace while preparing for war.
"We will not be fooled by the U.S.' two-faced tactic of advocating dialogue on the surface, while aiming at the military overthrow of its dialogue partner from behind," he said.