S.Korea on heightened alert as North readies for army celebration


Reuters

WRAPUP 5-S.Korea on heightened alert as North readies for army celebration


* Anniversary of North Korea's army on Tuesday
    * Envoys to meet on the same day
    * South Korea on heightened alert
    * Trump speaks of "unusual moves"

    By Ju-min Park and Ben BlanchardSEOUL/BEIJING, April 21 (Reuters) - South Korea said on
Friday it was on heightened alert ahead of another important
anniversary in North Korea, with a large concentration of
military hardware amassed on both sides of the border amid
concerns about a new nuclear test by Pyongyang.
    U.S. officials said there was a higher-than-usual level of
activity by Chinese bombers, signalling a possible heightened
state of readiness by reclusive North Korea's sole major ally,
although the officials played down concern and left open a range
of possible reasons. Beijing denied its aircraft were on an
increased level of alert. [nL3N1HS07Y] [nL3N1HT46B]
    In Russia, the RIA news agency said a Kremlin spokesman
declined to comment on media reports Russia was moving military
hardware and troops towards the border with North Korea.
    U.S. and South Korean officials have been saying for weeks
that the North could soon stage another nuclear test in
violation of United Nations sanctions, something both the United
States and China have warned against.
    North Korea marks the 85th anniversary of the foundation of
its Korean People's Army on Tuesday, an important anniversary
that comes at the end of major winter military drills, South
Korea'sUnification Ministry spokesman Lee Duk-haeng said.
    Top envoys from the United States, South Korea and Japan are
due to meet on Tuesday, South Korea's foreign ministry said, to
"discuss plans to rein in North Korea's additional high-strength
provocations, to maximize pressure on the North, and to ensure
China's constructive role in resolving the North Korea nuclear
issue".
    South Korea and the United States have also been conducting
annual joint military exercises, which the North routinely
criticises as a prelude to invasion.
    "It is a situation where a lot of exercise equipment is
amassed in North Korea and also a lot of strategic assets are
situated on the Korean peninsula because of the South Korea-U.S.
military drills," Lee told a briefing.
    "We are closely watching the situation and will not be
letting our guards down."
    U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday praised Chinese
efforts to rein in "the menace of North Korea", after North
Korean state media warned the United States of a "super-mighty
preemptive strike".
    U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday North
Korea's rhetoric was provocative but he had learned not to trust
it.

    "UNUSUAL MOVES"
    Trump told a news conference "some very unusual moves have
been made over the last two or three hours", and that he was
confident Chinese President Xi Jinping would "try very hard" to
pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes.
    Trump gave no indication of what the moves might be. None of
the U.S. officials who told Reuters about the heightened level
of activity by Chinese bombers suggested alarm or signalled that
they knew the precise reason for such activity.
    China's Defence Ministry denied its aircraft were on high
alert, saying in a brief statement late on Friday that its
forces on the border with North Korea were maintaining a state
of normal combat preparedness and training.
    Asked earlier about Trump's comments, Chinese Foreign
Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Xi and Trump had had a full and
deep discussion about North Korea when they met this month.
    "I can only say that via deep communications between China
and the U.S. at various levels including at the highest levels,
the U.S. now has an even fuller and more correct understanding
of China's policy and position and has a more rounded
understanding of China's efforts," Lu said. "We feel very
gratified about this."
    An official Chinese newspaper said there was optimism about
persuading the North to end its pursuit of a nuclear programme
without the use of force, "now that even the once tough-talking
Donald Trump is onboard for a peaceful solution".
    "Beijing has demonstrated due enthusiasm for Washington's
newfound interest in a diplomatic solution and willingness to
work more closely with it," the state-run China Daily said in an
editorial.
    In Russia's Far East, some media have cited residents as
saying they have seen military hardware being moved towards
North Korea, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said deployment
of Russian troops inside Russia were not a public matter.
    Tensions have risen sharply in recent months after North
Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests last year and carried
out a steady stream of ballistic missile tests. Trump has vowed
to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States
with a nuclear missile.

    "RED LINE"
    North Korea has said it would test missiles when it sees fit
and a South Korean analyst said he believed the country would do
so.
    "Without crossing the red line such as a nuclear test or a
test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, until the
April 25 anniversary of the Korean People's Army, North Korea is
expected to continue to launch mid-range missiles," said Cheong
Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at Sejong Institute
outside Seoul.
    The joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises are due to
finish at the end of April.
    A U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl
Vinson, is heading towards the Korean Peninsula, Trump's
administration has said.
    North Korea test-fired what the United States believed was a
mid-range missile on Sunday. It blew up almost immediately.
    The failed launch came a day after the 105th anniversary of
the birth of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, the
current leader's grandfather.
    There is concern the North will use the next big day on its
calendar, April 25, to show off its strength.
    "Although North Korea attempted a missile launch but failed
on April 16, considering the April 25 anniversary of the Korean
People's Army, there are concerns that it can make another
provocation again at any time," South Korea's acting president
Hwang Kyo-ahn told top officials on Thursday.
    He called on the military to maintain readiness.

 (Addtional reporting by Polina Devitt in MOSCOW, Idrees Ali in
TEL AVIV; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel and Alex
Richardson)
 ((ju-min.park@thomsonreuters.com; +82 2 3704 5650; Reuters
Messaging: ju-min.park.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: NORTHKOREA USA/ (WRAPUP 5, PIX, TV)



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