SEOUL - North Korea vowed to step up its nuclear arms program in an angry response to the use of its flag during a live-fire exercise Friday by the South Korean and U.S. militaries.

"The U.S. imperialists' reckless firing at the [North Korean] flag, symbolic of its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation, is the most vivid expression of their hostile policy toward the [North]," an unidentified Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said in a statement released late Sunday on the state-run Korean Central News Agency website.

"It is an extremely grave military action and politically motivated provocation to fire live bullets and shells at the flag of a sovereign state without a declaration of war," the statement said.

Officials called the exercise in Pocheon - about 15 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone - the largest one-day joint live-fire exercise since the Korean War. More than 4,000 spectators watched as more than 2,000 troops engaged in an impressive array of air and land firepower.

The hourlong pyrotechnic extravaganza concluded with explosions blanketing a large North Korean flag on a distant hillside behind a wall of fire and smoke. A South Korean flag was then unfurled on a nearby hillside, marking the end of the exercise and "victory" for the allied forces.

North Korea - which routinely issues over-the-top threats in response to slights real and perceived - seized on the exercise as a reason to forge ahead with its nuclear program.

The KCNA statement, in which the country vowed to "further bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense," was primarily directed at the U.S., even though Friday's exercise was led by the South Korean military and presided over by South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik.

South Korean Ministry of National Defense officials said the North Korean flag was used to mark enemy territory in the context of the scenario that was played out.

The exercise, one official said, "presupposed an all-out war with North Korea … when they cross over the border. So, we used the North Korean flag to mark the location of North Korea's command group."

Another MND official said the use of the flag had "military meaning, not a political meaning."

Organizers said Friday's exercise was scheduled to demonstrate how South Korean and U.S. forces would respond if the North were to launch an attack similar to the one it did June 25, 1950, to start the three-year conflict.

"Lurking behind the U.S. hostile policy is its aggressive ambition to stifle the [North] and swallow up the whole of the Korean peninsula," the KCNA statement said.

Responding to North Korea's bluster, an MND official said: "Our military is always thoroughly prepared for anything."

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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