North Korea’s official media sharply criticised South Korea and the United States for pressing ahead with joint military exercises next week amid heightened tensions on the peninsula.

North Korea has long criticised the annual military exercises the US conducts with South Korea, regarding them as a rehearsal for an invasion of the North.

North’s Korea’s Central News Agency said the joint exercises would “further drive the situation on the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophe,” according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Top American general warns North Korea that ‘an attack on Japan is an attack on US’

The US-South Korean exercise, called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, will involve about 17,500 US servicemen, including 3,000 from outside South Korea, the Pentagon said. The exercise runs between August 21-31.

The exercise is “a regularly scheduled, annual exercise and is the culmination of many months of planning,” Marine Lt Colonel Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement earlier this week.

The comments from North Korea come amid heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea, which has pressed ahead with a nuclear weapons programme despite international condemnation.

North Korea had threatened to fire a missile into the waters off Guam, a US territory that holds two major US military bases. It later said it would postpone the missile launch, pending US actions.

But the threats triggered a stern warning from Washington.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Thursday the US military would be prepared to intercept any missile heading toward the US territory or that of its allies.

“In the event of a missile launch towards the territory of Japan, Guam, United States, Korea, we would take immediate, specific actions to take it down,” Mattis said.

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