North Korean state media warned on Tuesday of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression as a U.S. Navy strike group steamed toward the western Pacific.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has urged China to do more to rein in its impoverished neighbour, said in a Tweet that North Korea was “looking for trouble” and the United States would “solve the problem” with or without China’s help.
Tension has escalated sharply on the Korean peninsula amid concerns that reclusive North Korea may soon conduct a sixth nuclear test and after Washington said at the weekend it was diverting U.S. Navy strike group Carl Vinson from port calls to Australia toward the Korean peninsula as a show of force.
U.S. officials have stressed that stronger sanctions are the most likely U.S. course to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear program but Washington has said all options, including military ones, are on the table and that a U.S. strike last week against Syria should serve as a warning to Pyongyang.
North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the country was prepared to respond to any U.S. aggression.
“Our revolutionary strong army is keenly watching every move by enemy elements with our nuclear sight focused on the U.S. invasionary bases not only in South Korea and the Pacific operation theatre but also in the U.S. mainland,” it said.
South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn warned of “greater provocations” by North Korea and ordered the military to intensify monitoring and ensure close communication with Washington.
“It is possible the North may wage greater provocations such as a nuclear test timed with various anniversaries including the Supreme People’s Assembly,” said Hwang, acting leader since former president Park Geun-hye was removed amid a graft scandal.
Trump said in a Tweet that a trade deal between China and the United States would be “far better for them if they solved the North Korea problem”.
“If China decides to help, that would be great,” he said. “If not, we will solve the problem without them!”
Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met in Florida last week and Trump pressed Xi to do more to rein in North Korea.
China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, repeated China’s call for a return to dialogue with North Korea.
“The situation is tense and we certainly want a peaceful solution and we believe that it is highly important to move toward denuclearization, to maintain peace and stability and it’s time that different sides sit down to talk about achieving these objectives,” he told Reuters.
Asked about Trump linking a trade deal to China’s help with North Korea: “We need to look at the situation on the Korean Peninsula as something that we should work together on.”
North Korea convened a Supreme People’s Assembly session on Tuesday, one of its twice-yearly sessions attended by leader Kim Jong Un, and reported a successful national budget execution and personnel appointments, the official KCNA news agency said.
The agency made no mention of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme or being under threat from the United States.
South Korean officials sought to quell talk in social media of an impending security crisis.
“We’d like to ask for precaution so as not to get blinded by exaggerated assessment about the security situation on the Korean peninsula,” Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun said.
Saturday is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding father and grandfather of the current ruler.
A military parade is expected in Pyongyang to mark the day. North Korea often also marks important anniversaries with tests of its nuclear or missile capabilities in breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Men and women in colourful outfits were singing and dancing on the streets of Pyongyang, illuminated by better lighting than seen in previous years, apparently practising for the parade.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent congratulations, lambasting “big powers” for their “expansionist” policy.
“The friendly two countries are celebrating this anniversary and, at the same time, conducting a war against big powers’ wild ambition to subject all countries to their expansionist and dominationist policy and deprive them of their rights to self-determination,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted his message as saying.
North Korea’s foreign ministry said the approach of the U.S. Navy strike group showed Washington’s “reckless moves for invading had reached a serious phase”.
“We never beg for peace but we will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms and keep to the road chosen by ourselves,” an unidentified ministry spokesman said.
U.S. officials said at the weekend the carrier group would take more than a week to reach waters near the Korean peninsula.
A statement from U.S. forces in South Korea on Tuesday said General Vincent Brooks, commander of United States Forces Korea, would not attend a Congressional hearing expected for later this month because of the “security situation on the Korean Peninsula.” The statement said the step was not unprecedented.
North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and its main ally, the United States.
The North has conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.
The Trump administration has been reviewing its policy towards Pyongyang and while it says all options are on the table officials say non-military pressure on Pyongyang with China’s help is the preferred path.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said it was concerned about many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, particularly North Korea.
“We are really worried about what Washington has in mind for North Korea after it hinted at the possibility of a unilateral military scenario,” the ministry said.
“It’s important to understand how that would tally with collective obligations on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, something that is underpinned in U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Russia condemned U.S. cruise missile strikes on Syria on Friday, calling them an illegal attack on a sovereign state.
China and South Korea agreed on Monday to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea if it carried out nuclear or long-range missile tests, a senior official in Seoul said.
On Tuesday, a fleet of North Korean cargo ships was heading home, most of them fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return coal to curb the trade, sources with direct knowledge of the trade said.
China banned all imports of North Korean coal, the country’s most important export, on Feb. 26, but Washington has questioned how well the sanction was being implemented.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul, Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tom Heneghan and James Dalgleish)