Korea tensions ease slightly as US officials play down war risks
SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) - Tensions on the Korean peninsula eased slightly on Monday as South Korea's president said resolving Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions must be done peacefully and key US officials played down the risk of an imminent war with North Korea.
Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has underpinned a spike in tensions in recent months.
US President Donald Trump warned at the weekend that the US military was "locked and loaded" if North Korea acted unwisely after threatening last week to land missiles near the US Pacific territory of Guam.
"There must be no more war on the Korean peninsula. Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully," South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a regular meeting with senior aides and advisers.
"I am certain the United States will respond to the current situation calmly and responsibly in a stance that is equal to ours," he said.
While backing Trump's tough talk, officials including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Sunday played down the risk of the rhetoric escalating into conflict.
"I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago," McMaster told ABC News’ "This Week".
US Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might well conduct another missile test but talk of being on the cusp of a nuclear war was overstating the risk.
"I've seen no intelligence that would indicate that we're in that place today," Pompeo told "Fox News Sunday".
North Korea reiterated its threats on Monday, with its official KCNA news agency saying "war cannot be blocked by any power if sparks fly due to a small, random incident that was unintentional".
"Any second Korean War would have no choice but to spread into a nuclear war," it said in a commentary.
South Korean Vice Defence Minister Suh Choo-suk agreed North Korea was likely to continue provocations, including nuclear tests, but did not see a big risk of the North engaging in actual military conflict.
Suh again highlighted doubts about North Korea's claims about its military capability.
"Both the United States and South Korea do not believe North Korea has yet completely gained re-entry technology in material engineering terms," Suh said in remarks televised on Sunday for a Korea Broadcasting System show.
The United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Tension in the region has risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, tests that the North often conducts to coincide with important national dates.
Tuesday marks the anniversary of Japan's expulsion from the Korean peninsula, a rare holiday celebrated by both the North and the South. Moon and Kim, who has not been seen publicly for several days, are both expected to make addresses on their respective sides of the heavily militarised border.
Trump has urged China, the North's main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbour, often linking Beijing's efforts to comments around US-China trade. China strenuously rejects linking the two issues.
Trump will issue an order later on Monday to determine whether to investigate Chinese trade practices that force US firms operating in China to turn over intellectual property, senior administration officials said on Saturday.
China's official China Daily said such an investigation would poison the relationship between the two countries.
"By trying to incriminate Beijing as an accomplice in (North Korea's) nuclear adventure and blame it for a failure that is essentially a failure of all stakeholders, Trump risks making the serious mistake of splitting up the international coalition that is the means to resolve the issue peacefully," it said.
"Hopefully Trump will find another path. Things will become even more difficult if Beijing and Washington are pitted against each other."
Asian stocks rallied on Monday as investors took heart from the less bellicose rhetoric after fleeing riskier assets last week.
Financial markets regard tensions between Pyongyang and Washington as more serious than in the past, South Korean Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon said.
"The effect from North Korea-related jitters on financial and foreign exchange markets has been causing some global anxiety and we cannot rule out market volatility can widen from the smallest shock," he said.
Kim Dong-yeon will meet South Korea's central bank governor on Wednesday to discuss the risk to markets and potential stabilising measures, according to the Bank of Korea.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford is visiting Seoul to discuss the rise in tensions ahead of major US-South Korean joint military drills scheduled for later this month.
South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Lee Jin-woo said the drills, long a source of aggravation for Pyongyang, would go ahead as planned.
"They are just, legal and annual drills that are focused on defence and to curb North Korea's provocations," he told a regular briefing in Seoul.
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