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North Korea threatens military escalation as clock ticks on year-end deadline

Seoul

NORTH Korea has a message for President Donald Trump and the United States: the clock is ticking, and a bomb is about to explode.

There are seven weeks until North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un is scheduled to deliver a keynote New Year's Day speech. That will come a day after his self-imposed year-end deadline expires for the US to come up with new proposals to restart nuclear talks.

On Wednesday - with Washington transfixed on the House impeachment inquiry - North Korea significantly raised the stakes, making an implicit threat to resume long-range missile or nuclear tests. In an official statement, the North said it felt "betrayed" by a US decision to continue with joint air drills with South Korea, calling it an "undisguised breach" of an agreement made between Mr Kim and President Trump in Singapore last year.

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As a result, North Korea said it no longer felt bound by previous commitments. That could signal plans to resume nuclear or long-range missile tests.

"The US is not accepting with due consideration the year-end time limit that we set out of great patience and magnanimity," the statement from the country's State Affairs Commission said. "We, without being given anything, gave things the US president can brag about but the US side has not yet taken any corresponding step," it added. "Now, betrayal is only what we feel from the US side."

Mr Trump has repeatedly boasted that North Korea has stopped conducting nuclear or long-range missile tests under his watch, although it has conducted about a dozen shorter-range ballistic missile tests since April. But Pyongyang says Mr Trump has reneged on a promise to end joint military exercises with Seoul.

Relations between the two sides deteriorated sharply after a failed summit in Hanoi in February. Two months later, Mr Kim threatened to take his country on a "new path" unless the US changed its approach to the talks.

North Korea appears to want sanctions relief and security guarantees - some way of feeling that the regime would not suffer the same fate as Libya's Moammar Gaddafi or Iraq's Saddam Hussein if it scaled back its nuclear programme. If it doesn't get what it wants from Mr Trump, and soon, it may be about to dial up the heat.

"At present, when one party backpedals on its commitments and unilaterally takes hostile steps, there is neither reason nor any excuse for the other party to keep itself bound to its commitments. What's more, there is no sufficient time left," the North's statement said, vowing to answer dialogue with dialogue and "recourse to force in kind". South Korea says it is taking the threat seriously but insists there is still time to save the day.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said he believed the US and North Korea would return to the negotiating table before the end of the year. "If they miss this opportunity, the situation and the environment will get more difficult, and it will become more difficult for us to solve the issues," he added in an interview. WP