North Korea warns it would use nuclear weapons first if threatened

PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea has warned that it may carry out further nuclear tests and says it is prepared to launch a preemptive strike on the United States if U.S. nuclear forces mobilize against it.

"The U.S. has nuclear weapons off our coast, targeting our country, our capital and our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un," a top North Korean official, Lee Yong Pil, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News.

"We will not step back as long as there's a nuclear threat to us from the United States," added Lee, who is director of the Foreign Ministry's Institute for American Studies.

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Tension between South and North Korea
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Tension between South and North Korea

"A preemptive nuclear strike is not something the U.S. has a monopoly on," he said. "If we see that the U.S. would do it to us, we would do it first. ... We have the technology."

Such threats have been a staple of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un since he took power after his father's death in 2011. U.S. officials do not believe Pyongyang possesses weapons able to reach the continental United States.

Lee also warned that North Korea may carry out "a sixth, a seventh or an eighth" nuclear test.

Lee said his government's stance was being driven by "the increasingly aggressive" drills by the United States and the South.

The comments came as Washington and Seoul conducted joint naval exercises off the Korean peninsula. The South Korean military told the country's Yonhap news agency that one of the drills scheduled to end later this month involved targeting the North's nuclear facilities.

For its part, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear program, carrying out its fourth and fifth tests this year. The International Atomic Energy Agency called the moves "deeply troubling" and "regrettable."

Ri said that Pyongyang is also launching rockets to carry satellites into space and that "in the future our goal is not just going to the moon, but to the other planets."

He denied that the country's rocket program has had help from Russia or Iran, claiming "it's 100 percent our own."

U.S. scientists believe that none of North Korea's launches so far have included any fully functioning satellites.

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