North Korea said Friday that it would not hold talks with the United States and South Korea on its nuclear weapons program as long as the two countries continued to hold joint military exercises.
"This is the deterrent, the nuclear deterrent to cope with the nuclear threat from America," North Korean U.N. Ambassador Han Tae Song told Reuters on Friday in an exclusive interview in Geneva.
"There are continued military exercises using nuclear assets as well as aircraft carriers, and strategic bombers ... raising such kinds of military exercises against my country," Han said.
On November 11, the U.S. and South Korea began four days of joint naval drills in waters off South Korea's eastern coast in what the South Korean military described as a clear warning to North Korea.
In Washington, State Department officials pushed back, saying U.S. joint military exercises with Asian allies were "lawful," "long-standing" and "defense-oriented," unlike North Korea's "unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs and testing."
Display of will, readiness
The joint exercises were designed to display "strong will and firm military readiness to defeat any provocation by North Korea with dominant force in the event of a crisis," Seoul's military said in a statement last week.
U.S. and Japanese naval forces, meanwhile, began their annual bilateral military training exercise Thursday in the waters surrounding Okinawa. It was also meant to send a strong signal to Pyongyang of America's capability to rapidly mobilize a potent military force.
China said on Thursday that a "dual suspension" proposal to handle North Korea was still the best option, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had rejected a "freeze for freeze" agreement.
'No moral equivalency'
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Friday played down the difference, saying Xi recognized a nuclear North Korea was a grave threat.
"A lot of countries like to talk about this idea for a freeze for freeze, but that's just not going to work," Nauert said during the briefing.
"There's no moral equivalency between the actions on the part" of North Korea and "our legal, justified activities," Nauert said, comparing Pyongyang's missile launches and advanced nuclear tests with U.S. joint military exercises with its Asian allies.
North Korea's Han, when asked about China's latest appeal for a freeze, said, "The situation is far from those things." Han said that U.S. administrations had "never accepted" halting joint military exercises, adding, "If they accept such things, then we will think what we do in the future."
Han dismissed new sanctions the Trump administration has said it is preparing and the possible addition of North Korea to the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism.
North Korea is under heavy global pressure to stop its nuclear and missile development programs, which are in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The country conducted its last ballistic missile test two months ago, and Han told Reuters he did not know when North Korea might test again.
"My country will continue to build up its self-defense capability, the pivot of which is nuclear forces and capability for a triumphant ... strike, as long as U.S. and hostile forces keep their nuclear threat and blackmail," he said.
The North Korean official added: "Our country plans ultimate completion of the nuclear force."
South Korea and the U.S. agreed Friday to keep seeking a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, but a U.S. envoy said the two countries received "no signal" about Pyongyang's intentions.
China, meanwhile, was preparing Friday to send a representative to North Korea in an effort to improve relations.
Chinese state media reported that special envoy Song Tao — the highest-level envoy to be sent to Pyongyang in two years — would report the results of China's ruling Communist Party congress held last month and visit North Korean counterparts.
China did not provide additional information about the envoy's itinerary, including whether he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.