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North Korea Warns Of War As Clinton Heads For Seoul

South Korean conservatives welcome the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outside the US Embassy in Seoul.
SEOUL (Reuters) -- North Korea said it was ready for war with the South, just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was set to arrive in Seoul for talks on defusing the North's military threat.

North Korea has repeatedly threatened in recent weeks to reduce the South to ashes. Pyongyang is thought to be readying its longest-range missile for launch in what analysts say is a bid to grab the new U.S. administration's attention and pressure Seoul to ease up on its hard line.

"[The South Korean president's] group of traitors should never forget that the [North] Korean People's Army is fully ready for an all-out confrontation," the North's KCNA news agency quoted an unnamed military official as saying.

Clinton said in Tokyo on February 17 at the start of her first foreign trip since taking office that a North Korean missile launch would be "very unhelpful".

The South's foreign minister warned a launch would be met by sanctions and further isolation for the reclusive state.

Reports in the South said North Korea has been assembling its Taepodong-2 missile, which is designed to carry a warhead as far as Alaska. The same missile fizzled and blew apart seconds after it was launched for the first and only time in 2006.

South Korea's defense minister was quoted by local media as saying the North could test-launch the missile in about two or three weeks. A leading local daily quoted intelligence sources as saying it could be as early as next week.

South Korean officials have said they are also worried about North Korea holding a short-range missile test toward a contested Yellow Sea border off the west coast of the peninsula which has been the scene of deadly naval fights between the rival Koreas.

Clinton Visit

Analysts said the North may provoke a minor skirmish but they did not expect a major conflict because Pyongyang's huge but ill-equipped army is little match for South Korea and its major ally the United States, which positions about 28,000 troops on the peninsula.

The North said it may be forced to counterstrike if it felt threatened by joint U.S. and South Korean military drills announced on February 18. The annual drills will be held in March.

"If bellicose U.S. forces and South Korean puppets dare wage aggression against us wrapped up in foolish delusion, we will explode our might...and ruthlessly destroy the invasionary forces," KCNA said.

Just before Clinton touched down in Tokyo this week, North Korea issued a fresh missile threat by saying it had the right to launch its longest-range rocket, which Pyongyang contends is at the center of its peaceful space program.

Clinton, who has meetings in Indonesia on Thursday, her second day there, will go to China after her stop in South Korea.

She arrives in Seoul late on February 19 and will hold discussions on February 20 with top South Korean officials including President Lee Myung-bak when efforts to end Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons ambitions are likely to top the agenda.

North Korea has lambasted Lee in its official media. Lee, who took office a year ago, has angered the destitute North by cutting off what once had been a free flow of unconditional aid and saying handouts would come once Pyongyang behaved better.

"It has gone so far that it is kind of worrying because they [North Koreans] are putting themselves in the position of having to carry through on some of this rhetoric," said Brian Myers, an expert on the North's ideology at the South's Dongseo University.