By MATTHEW PENNINGTON AND JOSH LEDERMAN, The ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — The U.S. is fully capable of defending itself against a North Korean ballistic missile attack, the White House said Thursday, after Pyongyang threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States.
The threat from Pyongyang came ahead of a unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council approving its toughest sanctions yet on North Korea in response to an atomic test last month.
North Korea has escalated its bellicose statements this week as the tightening of U.N. sanctions loomed. It has also threatened to scrap the cease-fire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
"I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
North Korea has now conducted three nuclear tests, although experts doubt it has mastered how to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States.
The top U.S. envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, cautioned Pyongyang not to miscalculate, saying the U.S. will take necessary steps to defend itself and its allies, including South Korea, where it bases over 30,000 U.S. forces.
The U.S. also provides what it calls a "nuclear umbrella" security guarantee to both South Korea and Japan, neighbors of North Korea which do not have atomic weapons, and missile defense capabilities.
"We take all North Korean threats seriously enough to ensure that we have the correct defense posture to deal with any contingencies that might arise," Davies told reporters after testifying to a Senate foreign relations panel.
Thursday's statement out of Pyongyang appeared to be the most specific open threat of a nuclear strike by any country against another, but the Senate panel's chairman, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said the threat was "absurd" and one that if carried out would be suicide.
Davies reiterated that the U.S. will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state – although after conducting three nuclear tests it is already assumed to have at least the capability to make at least a crude atomic bomb.
Davies, however, had to defend against Republican skepticism of the effectiveness of Obama administration's policy toward North Korea, which has taken strides in the past year toward its goal of having a nuclear weapon that can target the U.S. In December, it conducted its first successful launch of a three-stage, long-range rocket.
Ranking Republican Sen. Bob Corker, drew a comparison to U.S. policy on Iran, where the U.S. has warned it could resort to military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
North Korea is "equally nutty" and with a worse human rights record, and "way past any red line we would accept in Iran," he said.
Corker concluded that Davies' hope that the dual-track U.S. policy of pressure and engagement would eventually work in getting Pyongyang to change its ways was a "highly aspirational statement that does not seem to be based on reality."
The new U.N. sanctions, supported by the North's chief ally and source of economic aid, China, should make it more difficult for Pyongyang to finance and obtain material for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and for the reclusive nation's ruling elite to acquire luxury goods.
Davies said the growing international condemnation of North Korea's actions and the new U.N. sanctions showed "the world is beginning to wake up" to the problem the North poses.
But U.S. lawmakers remain skeptical of Beijing's commitment to implementing the sanctions, which will be critical for their effectiveness as most of the companies and banks that North Korea is believed to work with are based in China.