North Korea threatened on Saturday to respond with nuclear weapons to a major U.S.-South Korean naval exercise starting this weekend, saying it was ready for a “retaliatory sacred war.”

The threat came from the powerful National Defence Commission (NDC), chaired by leader Kim Jong-Il, as tensions grew over the sinking of a South Korean warship which Seoul and Washington blamed it on Pyongyang.

The North Korea routinely threatens war in response to joint military exercises by the two long-time allies, calling them a rehearsal for war.

But tensions have been high for the past two months, since the US and South Korea accused the North of torpedoing the warship with the loss of 46 lives. The North denies involvement and says the “smear campaign” is a pretext for aggression.

The United States and South Korea have announced four-day joint exercises beginning on Sunday — the first in a series — in what they say is a bid to deter North Korea's “aggressive” behaviour.

“All these war manoeuvres are nothing but outright provocations aimed to stifle the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by force of arms to all intents and purposes,” the NDC said in a statement on Pyongyang's official news agency.

“The army and people of the DPRK will legitimately counter with their powerful nuclear deterrence the largest-ever nuclear war exercises to be staged by the U.S. and the South Korean puppet forces.

The exercise “is as reckless an act as waking up a sleeping tiger,” it said.

The North's people and army would “start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary” to counter the U.S. and South Korea, which were pushing the situation to the brink of war, it said.

In response to the warnings, the U.S. administration called on North Korea to tone down its “provocative” statements. “We are not interested in a war of words with North Korea,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in Washington. “What we need from North Korea is fewer provocative words and more constructive action.

Mr. Crowley told AFP that the North's comments were “irresponsible and precisely why we are committed to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.”

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