SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's military threatened Sunday to fire at South Korea, as Seoul prepared to start annual joint drills with U.S. troops — maneuvers Pyongyang says are a rehearsal for an invasion.
The North's military warned that it would shoot directly at South Korean border towns and destroy them if Seoul continued to allow activists to launch propaganda leaflets toward the communist country, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said. The warning was conveyed to South Korea's military earlier Sunday, it said.
"South Korea's traitor puppet regime must recognize the seriousness of the prevailing situation and immediately stop anti-(North Korea) psychological warfare," the KCNA said.
It accused South Korean activists and lawmakers of flying balloons carrying hundreds of thousands of leaflets critical of North Korea's government, one-dollar bills, DVDs containing corrupt animation files and other materials on the North's most important national holiday, an apparent reference to leader Kim Jong Il's 69th birthday, which was Feb. 16.
It was unclear whether activists have launched more balloons since then and if they plan more leafletting in coming days.
The warning came one day before the start of annual military drills between South Korea and the United States.
Pyongyang has called the drills a preparation to invade North Korea, though South Korean and U.S. officials have repeatedly said the maneuvers are purely defensive and that they have no intention of attacking.
The 11-day drills are aimed at rehearsing how to respond to any potential emergency on the Korean peninsula. About 12,800 U.S. troops and some 200,000 South Korean soldiers and reservists will take part in the drills, which involve computer war games, live-firing exercises and other field training, according to the U.S. and South Korean militaries.
The South Korean Defense Ministry confirmed it had received the North's warning. A ministry official said South Korea's military keeps a close watch on North Korean military movement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told parliament Friday that North Korea may launch new attacks this spring and that South Korea's military was ready to cope with any types of hostilities.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula spiked last year over two deadly incidents — the sinking of a South Korean naval ship blamed on the North and a North Korean artillery barrage that killed four people on a front-line South Korean island. North Korea denies it was involved in the sinking of the ship, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.
The countries' military officers met earlier this month but failed to reach a breakthrough, with both sides accusing the other of rupturing their first dialogue since the November bombardment of the island. North Korea later threatened not to hold any more military talks with Seoul.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to help deter potential aggression by the North.