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Pivotal week for peninsula as NK marks military anniversary

Amid unabated concerns over North Korea’s fresh nuclear test in time for another major anniversary, South Korea and the US are poised to be on heightened alert this week with cutting-edge military assets ready.

With the communist state marking the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday, Seoul and Washington have been intensifying their warnings against any additional provocation. 

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

Tension has been spiraling in recent weeks amid widespread speculation that North Korea may test a new nuclear device or an intercontinental ballistic missile in celebration of the 105th birthday of its late founding father Kim Il-sung on April 15.

In a show of force, the US’ Donald Trump administration redirected the Carl Vinson nuclear carrier strike group, which was already here last month for a joint military exercise with South Korea, toward the peninsula. During a visit to Seoul last week, Vice President Mike Pence warned Pyongyang “not to test” the US and “all options are on the table,” saying its recent strikes in Syria and Afghanistan showed the “strength and resolve” of Trump and the country’s military.

The moves prompted the North to respond with fresh threats of more weapons tests, a pre-emptive strike and nuclear war. But marking Kim’s birthday, it fired a midrange ballistic missile instead, which appeared to have exploded midair, and showed off a new ICBM at a military parade.

The military anniversary has been deemed another occasion for a major provocation, and therefore is expected to set the initial tone for the Trump administration’s approach to the Kim Jong-un regime.

Continued activities shown in satellite imagery from Wednesday at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site indicated it is able to conduct a sixth underground detonation “at any time,” the 38 North, a blog run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said Friday, though it is unclear if the site was in a “tactical pause” before a test or in normal operations.

Washington has also been ramping up pressure on Beijing to thwart any additional North Korean provocation through a summit and other diplomatic and military measures.

After controversy over its whereabouts, the Carl Vinson will arrive in the East Sea “in a matter of days,” Pence said Saturday in Sydney.

If the North indeed presses ahead with a nuclear or ICBM test, it would face further stringent condemnations and sanctions at the UN Security Council. With the US being this month’s chair, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host a UNSC session Friday, and a separate meeting on its sidelines with the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers, Yun Byung-se and Fumio Kishida.

Ahead of the ministerial talks, the three countries’ top nuclear negotiators are scheduled to gather in Tokyo on Tuesday.

China, for its part, is seen stepping up efforts to dissuade Pyongyang from the provocation. The US reportedly mentioned increased activities of Chinese bombers, while Beijing’s state media has called for a cut in oil supplies to the unruly neighbor and said China would not intervene even if the US strikes North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

“We’re closely monitoring all the developments, and if the North conducts a nuclear test, which we hope not, the situation would obviously deteriorate,” an official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said on customary condition of anonymity.

“But if we pass through this crisis without any large provocation, things could rather quickly turn around to defuse tension and attempt dialogue.” 

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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