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​North Korea has threatened a “pre-emptive and offensive nuclear strike” against South Korea and the United States if the two countries proceed with joint military exercises that began Monday, reported CNN, citing a statement published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency. This year’s Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises are the largest ever with some 300,000 South Korean and 15,000 US troops participating, reported the BBC. Last year, North Korea fired two Scud missiles from the port city of Nampo in protest of the annual exercises. The provocative statements come just days after North Korea ordered its nuclear forces on standby and fired short-range projectiles into the sea and two months after North Korean officials claimed the country detonated its first thermonuclear weapon. North Korean President Kim Jong Un said the decision to put the country on nuclear alert was aimed at “defending the sovereignty of our nation,” according to North Korean state media. However, US and South Korean officials say it is just an escalation in rhetoric and may not reflect actual nuclear capacity, according to The Associated Press. “We continue to urge the North Korean regime to refrain from provocative actions and statements that tend to aggravate tensions,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Friday. The US and South Korea also on Friday launched a joint working group to study the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system to the peninsula, according to the South Korean Yonhap News Agency.