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China, South Korea urge calm as North Korea prepares big celebration
[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 and China urged the North to halt its nuclear programme in exchange for greater protection from Beijing.
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.
On Thursday, an influential state-backed Chinese newspaper said the best option for North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un was to give up its nuclear programme. "As soon as North Korea complies with China's declared advice and suspends nuclear activities ... China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearised North Korean nation and regime," said an editorial in the Global Times, which is published by the Communist party's People's Daily.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored fears about possible threats from North Korea, telling parliament in Tokyo that Pyongyang could have the capacity to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve gas.
While US President Donald Trump has put North Korea on notice that he won't tolerate provocative actions by the North, US officials have said his administration was focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions.
Mr 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," Mr 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.
Around 200 foreign journalists gathered in Pyongyang for North Korea's biggest national day, the "Day of the Sun", were taken to what was billed by officials as a "big and important event" early on Thursday.
It turned out to be the opening of a new street in the centre of the capital, attended by Mr Kim.
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.
North Korea's official KCNA news agency reported early on Thursday that Kim Jong Un had guided training of the army's special operation forces jumping from aircraft. "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 Mr 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 per cent 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.
Mr 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.
Mr 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.