Tensions grow on Korean peninsula ahead of ‘big and important event’
SEOUL – South Korea said on Thursday it believed it would be consulted by the United States before any possible pre-emptive US strike against Pyongyang, where foreign journalists gathered for “a big and important event”.
With a US aircraft carrier group steaming to the area, tensions on the Korean peninsula grew this week amid concern that the reclusive North could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test or more missile launches in defiance of United Nations sanctions.
China, North Korea’s sole major ally and benefactor, has called for a peaceful resolution after a sharp rise in rhetoric between the United States and Pyongyang.
While US President Donald Trump has put North Korea “clearly on notice” that he would not tolerate provocative actions by the North, US officials have said his administration was focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions.
Trump has diverted the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group towards the Korean peninsula, which could take more than a week to arrive, in a show of force aimed at deterring North Korea from conducting another nuclear test or launching more missiles to coincide with major commemorative events.
The possibility of US military action against North Korea in response to such tests gained traction after the US Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield last week in response to a deadly gas attack.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said he believed Washington would consult Seoul if it was considering a pre-emptive strike against the North.
“Under the South Korea-US alliance, any important measure on the North is taken under consultation with the South Korea government and it will continue in the future,” Yun told a parliamentary hearing.
A Washington-based think tank that monitors North Korea, 38 North, said satellite images taken on Wednesday showed continued activity around the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that showed it was ready for a new test.
South Korean officials said on Thursday there were no new signs to indicate a North Korean nuclear test was more likely, although they also said the North has maintained a state of readiness to conduct such a test at any time.
“DAY OF THE SUN”
North Korea marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on Saturday. In 2012, it tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date and tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile last year.
Around 200 foreign journalists are in Pyongyang for North Korea’s biggest national day, called “Day of the Sun”. Officials gave no details of the big event and similar announcements in the past have been linked to relatively low-key set pieces.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported early on Thursday that leader Kim Jong Un had guided training of the army’s special operation forces jumping from aircraft to strike at targets.
“Watching the brave combatants mercilessly blow up the enemy targets, he said with pleasure that the commanding officers made correct decisions, adding those combatants carrying out their duties independently and pro-actively were reminiscent of fierce tigers crossing the mountain ranges in the southern half,” KCNA reported.
On Tuesday, North Korea warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression. The North is technically at war with the United States and South Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.
The North regularly threatens to destroy both countries.
US officials said Trump was considering tougher sanctions that could possibly include an oil embargo, banning North Korea’s airline, intercepting cargo ships, and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang.
“There’s a whole host of things that are possible, all the way up to what’s essentially a trade quarantine on North Korea,” one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Washington on Wednesday.
Customs data in Beijing on Thursday showed that China’s coal imports from North Korea plunged 51.6 percent in the first three months in 2017 from a year ago.
China suspended issuing permits for importing coal from North Korea on Feb. 18 as part of its efforts to implement UN sanctions against Pyongyang.
In Seoul, the won strengthened to near a one-week intraday high in early trading on Thursday as security fears on the peninsula eased slightly. The Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) was up a mere 0.1 percent.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on Wednesday, just days after they met in the United States for the first time, underscoring the sense of urgency about North Korea.
Trump said on Twitter his call with Xi was a “very good” discussion of the “menace of North Korea”. He said later on Wednesday the United States was prepared to tackle the crisis without China if necessary.
Xi stressed that China was “committed to the target of denuclearisation on the peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula, and advocates resolving problems through peaceful means”, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said. -Reuters