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Kim Jong-unNorth Korea threatened to exercise its “right to pre-emptive nuclear attack” Thursday as Pyongyang ratcheted up its rhetoric ahead of a United Nations vote on new sanctions.

“Now that the U.S. is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war, the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK will exercise the right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country,” the North’s foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

A spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry told Reuters that the military was “watching the North’s activities and stepping up readiness.”

On Wednesday, the South Korean military said it would strike back at North Koreaand target its top leadership if Pyongyang attacks.

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 February 12, triggering the prospect of more U.N. 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.

Earlier in the week, Pyongyang threatened to end the 60-year truce that ended the Korean war.

Saber-rattling?

Angus Walker, a Beijing-based correspondent with NBC News’ partner ITV News, said the current consensus was that North Korea did not have a missile that was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

“There is always a lot of saber-rattling when the U.S. and South Korea stage large-scale military exercises,” he said.

North Korea continues military drills and exercises in support of a top general’s threat to back military action against South Korea and the United States. NBCNews.com’s Dara Brown reports.

The North does have smaller missiles, as seen during military parades, and South Korea’s capital Seoul is within artillery range.

While the North has in the past threatened to hit Seoul with a “rain of fire,” claiming it can launch 250,000 artillery shells in an hour at the South Korean capital, the reality is that those artillery batteries could be destroyed very quickly, Walker said.

War-game scenarios have suggested that a war on the peninsula would be over quickly, with the North under U.S. and South Korean control within 24 hours, Walker said.

However, the Korea Economic Institute earlier this week warned that Pyongyang could “certainly inflict serious damage along the Southern side of the [demilitarized zone] in the event of a surprise attack” using artillery.

It added:

Taken together, North Korea’s forward deployed long-range artillery could launch as many as 20,000 shells an hour at downtown Seoul … However, it is important to underscore that these are best-case figures (from North Korea’s military point of view) and in all reality, performance and frequency of the bombardment would be much lower than the numbers detailed above.

…300 artillery pieces in direct range of Seoul is of course a serious concern for allied commanders. A “sea of fire” might not be the result in case of their use, but it is evident that tens of thousands of civilians could die and even more injured if they were used in an indiscriminate way.

The Korea Economic Institute also pointed out that North Korea “reportedly has chemical munitions” that could be fired using artillery. In 2011, Pyongyang reportedly had 1.2 military personnel at its disposal.

South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye recently promised to engage with the North if it dropped its nuclear ambitions.

The U.N. Security Council measures expected to be approved later on Thursday would ban the sale of items coveted by North Korea’s elite, like racing cars and yachts, a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The new measures would hit North Korea’s financial transactions, which often involve cash couriers that make them hard to trace, and its criminal activities such as drugs and counterfeiting.

NBC News

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