S.Korea will retaliate if N.Korea attacks

South Korean military says it will strike back if attacked by North Korea.

South Korean military says it will strike back at North Korea if it carries out a threatened attacked. Picture: AFP

SEOUL/UNITED NATIONS - South Korea's military said it will strike back at North Korea and target its top leadership if Pyongyang launches a threatened attack in response to what it says are "hostile" drills between US and South Korean forces.

One of North Korea's top generals, in a rare appearance on state television on Tuesday, said Pyongyang had torn up its armistice deal with Washington and threatened military action against the US and South Korea if the drills went ahead. The military exercises began on 1 March.

Tensions have ratcheted higher across the Korean peninsula since the North, under youthful leader Kim Jong-un who took office just over a year ago after the death of his father, launched a long range rocket last December.

He followed this with a third nuclear test on 12 February, triggering the prospect of more UN sanctions that are due to be formally announced on Thursday after the United States and China, the North's one major diplomatic ally, struck a deal to punish Pyongyang.

At the same time, North Korea has stepped up its military threats against South Korea and the United States, prompting the terse warning from Seoul on Wednesday that it would not stand idly by if its territory was attacked.

"We have all preparations in place for strong and decisive punishment, not only against the source of the aggression and its support forces but also the commanding element," Major General Kim Yong-hyun of the South Korean army told a press conference in one of the clearest threats Seoul has made.

North Korea's bellicose rhetoric rarely goes beyond that, although in 2010 it sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and in the same year shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians.

Stung by criticism it took too long to respond to the island shelling, South Korea's military has relaxed its rules, allowing commanders on the ground to respond to aggression instead of needing permission from top military brass.

South Korea's new President Park Geun-hye had pledged to engage with the North if it dropped its nuclear plans but now faces the prospect of a hostile challenge early in her 5-year term.