North Korea tells its people to ready for war

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea urged its people and armed forces to be ready for war, saying Wednesday that it could be the U.S. military's next target after Iraq.

The communist government in Pyongyang accuses the United States of planning to send reinforcements into its coastal waters as a precursor of invasion.

It fired a short-range missile into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan on Monday, further escalating tension in the area.

Washington has repeatedly said it wants a peaceful solution to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear activities, but says it leaves all options open.

In a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry accused the United States of planning war games in South Korea so that it could attack the North.

'Matter of time'

"The U.S. military strike against Iraq is just a matter of time," it said.

"The ceaseless sabre-rattling staged by the U.S. in South Korea against this backdrop is creating an extremely tense situation where it may make a pre-emptive strike at the DPRK any time."

DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is the official name of North Korea.

"This compels the army and the people of the DPRK to keep themselves in full readiness by using all means and possibilities necessary to cope with it," the statement added.

Also Wednesday, the North said an American spy plane made a new intrusion over the country.

The official Korean Central News Agency said the RC-135 reconnaissance plane flew above the country on an intelligence mission, according to the Yonhap news agency, which monitors dispatches from Pyongyang.

"This is an outrageous violation on our republic's sovereign rights and a clear violation of international laws," the North Korean media said, according to Yonhap. "We warn that we will take stern self-defense measures."

The comments were not unusual in the supercharged atmosphere of recent weeks. But coming hours after the inauguration of South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, it was a reminder of the forces that will shape his coming months in office: a hostile communist regime and a U.S. administration determined to stop its nuclear weapons development.

Hours before his speech, South Korean officials announced that North Korea, which is in the middle of its annual winter training military exercise, fired an anti-ship missile into the sea near Japan on Monday.

South Korean officials described the missile as a small, conventional one not capable of reaching Japan or beyond.

In his inauguration address, Roh called on North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for help from the international community in rebuilding its moribund economy. But the first steps in calming jitters, he said, should be dialogue with the North and building "mutual trust."

Tensions have run high since October, when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program.

Later Tuesday, North Korea said an American reconnaissance plane intruded into its air space on a spying mission, in what the KCNA said was "a premeditated move to find an opportunity to mount a pre-emptive attack" on the North.

North Korea regularly makes such accusations. In Washington, the Pentagon denied that a spy plane intruded on North Korean airspace.

The U.S. military announced last week that it will conduct the exercises with South Korea next month. The annual maneuvers are not related to the dispute over North Korea's nuclear programs, it said.

North Korea, which criticizes the maneuvers every year, says the drills will undermine a fragile reconciliation process with South Korea.

The U.S. military command in Seoul described the joint drills as "defense-oriented" and designed to improve the U.S.-South Korea forces' ability to defend South Korea against "external aggression."

One of the exercises -- called "Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration" -- will take place March 19-26.

A second exercise -- called "Foal Eagle" -- is scheduled for March 4-April 2.

Since the nuclear standoff began in October, the United States and its allies have halted oil shipments to the North, while Pyongyang has withdrawn from the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and taken steps to reactivate frozen nuclear facilities. North Korea has also threatened to abandon the armistice that ended the Korean War five decades ago.