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Korean rhetoric takes jump to nuclear threat

SEOUL, South Korea — One month after a deadly exchange of artillery fire, the two Koreas ramped up their rhetoric Thursday, with South Korea's president pledging unsparing retaliation if attacked again and a top North Korean official threatening a "sacred" nuclear war if provoked.

South Korean troops, tanks and fighter jets put on a thundering display of force as President Lee Myung-bak visited with soldiers at a base near the border, while North Korea's elite marked a key military anniversary by lashing out at the South for encouraging war.

For both countries, the rallying cries and military maneuvers mainly seemed designed to build support at home. But they raised fears anew of all-out war on a peninsula that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called a "tinderbox" after returning from a visit to the North Korean capital this week.

In March, a South Korean warship went down in disputed waters off the west coast, killing 46 sailors. And a month ago, South Korean live-fire drills in nearby waters triggered a North Korean artillery shower on Yeonpyeong Island that killed four South Koreans, the first attack on a civilian area since the Korean War.

Caught by surprise, Seoul since has beefed up its rules of engagement and has staged military drills, including joint exercises with U.S. troops, meant to remind the North of its superior firepower. The South even carried out provocative artillery drills from Yeonpyeong Island on Monday in a bold dare to the North to retaliate.

The drills continued Thursday, with tanks firing artillery and fighter jets dropping bombs at training grounds in Pocheon, some 20 miles from the North.

There was a theatrical quality to the exercises: dozens of schoolchildren in bright yellow jackets were shuttled to the site to watch from bleachers.

President Lee Myung-bak met with troops manning a front-line army base in the east on the type of morale-boosting visit more commonly seen in the North. He vowed to retaliate if attacked again.

"I had thought that we could safeguard peace if we had patience, but that wasn't the case," he told the troops, according to his office. Any surprise attack will be met with an "unsparing" response, he warned.

After days of showing restraint, North Korea condemned the drills as a "grave military provocation." Defense chief Kim Yong Chun said North Korea was prepared to launch a "sacred war" and poised to use its nuclear capabilities to defend itself.

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