SEOUL -- North Korea suggested yesterday that it had the ability to launch a preemptive attack on the United States, according to the North's official news agency.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the North had built atomic weapons to counter the US nuclear threat.
''As we declared, our strong revolutionary might put in place all measures to counter possible US preemptive strike," the spokesman said, according to the Korean Central News Agency. ''Preemptive strike is not the monopoly of the United States."
The United States urged North Korea to return to international nuclear negotiations instead of making inflammatory statements. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States has no plans to invade or attack North Korea.
Last week, the communist country warned that it had the right to launch a preemptive strike, saying it would strengthen its war footing before joint South Korea-US military exercises scheduled for this weekend.
The North's spokesman said it would be a ''wise" step for the United States to cooperate on nuclear issues with North Korea in the same way it does with India.
Earlier this month, President Bush signed an accord in India that would open some of its atomic reactors to inspections in exchange for US nuclear know-how and atomic fuel. The accord was reached even though New Delhi has not signed the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea has withdrawn from the treaty and condemned the United States for giving India ''preferential" treatment.
''If the US is truly interested in finding a realistic way of resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, it would be wise for it to come out on the path of nuclear cooperation with us," the North Korean spokesman said.
The North's announcement that it has a nuclear arsenal risked escalating tensions in the prolonged standoff over its program and threatened the prospect of resuming six-nation talks.
''We have built nuclear weapons for no other purpose than to counter US nuclear threats," the Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
It is rare for North Korea to mention its nuclear capabilities in such a manner. It usually refers to its ''nuclear deterrent force."
North Korea first declared last year that it has nuclear weapons, although the claim could not be confirmed independently. Analysts believe the North has extracted enough plutonium from its main nuclear reactor for at least a half-dozen weapons.
Six-nation talks have been stalled since November over a dispute surrounding financial restrictions the United States imposed on North Korea for its alleged currency counterfeiting and money laundering. Those talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.
Pyongyang says it will not return to the negotiating table unless the restrictions are lifted. But Washington demands that the North come to the talks without preconditions, saying the two issues are separate.