North Korea threatened to punish Israel and accused Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Saturday of “rash and malicious” statements that insulted its leadership, after he criticized the Asian nation and called its leadership “extremist and insane.”

In an official foreign ministry statement, Pyongyang said Liberman has challenged North Korea by making “rash and malicious” comments against the nation.

“Our consistent message is to mercilessly punish those who offend the dignity of our leadership,” the statement said.

“We warn Israel to think twice about the implications of its defamation campaign against us.”

The statement further condemned Israel for its nuclear policy, and accused the Jewish state of abusing the rights of Arabs across the Middle East.

Defense Minister and Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman leads his party's weekly faction meeting at the Knesset, March 20, 2017. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

Defense Minister and Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman leads his party’s weekly faction meeting at the Knesset, March 20, 2017. (Hadas Porush/Flash90)

“Israel is the only illegal possessor of nuclear weapons that enjoys the support of the United States, but Israel is attacking North Korea for possessing nuclear weapons,” the statement read, going on to claim this was a cynical move intended to distract from Israeli “occupation” and “crimes against humanity.”

On Thursday Liberman said Pyongyang “seems to have crossed the red line with its recent nuclear tests,” adding that its nuclear weapons program posed more of a threat to world order than Iran or any terrorist group.

“We’re just ahead of a new era of accurate missile and unconventional weapons in the hands irrational people,” Liberman said.

In an interview with the Walla News website earlier in the week, furthermore, Liberman referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “the madman from North Korea.” He said Pyongyang was allied with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah — all part of “an axis of evil” led by “an extremist and insane group” whose single purpose was to “destabilize the entire world.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un waves from a balcony of the Grand People's Study house following a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ED JONES)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un waves from a balcony of the Grand People’s Study house following a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. (AFP/Ed Jones)

The unexpected diplomatic row with North Korea sparked criticism of Liberman by other Israeli politicians.

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, a frequent critic of his successor, wrote on Twitter “The minister of talk is chattering irresponsibly about North Korea. And there is no prime minister to rein in the babbling and posturing ministers.”

Meanwhile MK Shelly Yachimovich of the Zionist Union remarked on Twitter: “We have enough enemies. Let’s focus on them.”

The US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on Saturday kicked off a joint drill with the South Korean navy, officials said, as tensions rose over North Korea’s latest test-fire of a ballistic missile.

The drill came hours after the North launched a ballistic missile in apparent defiance of a concerted US push for tougher international sanctions to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

North Korean ballistic missile tests are banned by the United Nations because they’re seen as part of the North’s push for a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike the US mainland. The latest test came as US officials pivoted from a hard line to diplomacy at the UN in an effort to address what may be Washington’s most pressing foreign policy challenge.

The timing of the North’s test was striking: Only hours earlier the UN Security Council held a ministerial meeting on Pyongyang’s escalating weapons program. North Korean officials boycotted the meeting, which was chaired by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

North Korea routinely test-fires a variety of ballistic missiles, despite UN prohibitions, as part of its weapons development. While shorter-range missiles are somewhat routine, there is strong outside worry about each longer-range North Korean ballistic test.

AFP contributed to this report.