South Korea was on heightened alert on Friday 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.
North Korea will mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday, as it concludes winter military drills at the same time as U.S. and South Korean exercises running until the end of April, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Duk-haeng said.
“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,” he said, adding that South Korea would not let its guard down.
North Korea said on Friday the state of affairs on the Korean peninsula was “extremely perilous” because of “madcap American nuclear war maneuvers aimed at trampling on our sovereignty and right to survival.”
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. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile.
South Korean acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn told top officials on Thursday that given the April 25 anniversary, there were concerns that North Korea “can make another provocation again at any time.”
New satellite imagery analyzed by 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, found some activity under way at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but said it was unclear whether the site was in a “tactical pause” ahead of another test or was carrying out normal operations.
“Regardless, satellite imagery continues to indicate that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site appears able to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time once the order is received from Pyongyang,” 38 North said in an analysis on Friday.
U.S. officials said there was a higher-than-usual level of activity by Chinese bombers, signaling 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.
The Russian military on Friday denied media reports that it was building up its forces near the border with North Korea, the Interfax news agency reported, citing an army spokesman. Moscow said military movements seen by residents there were part of pre-planned exercises.
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 the United States, China and others have warned against.
On Thursday, Trump 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.” (Courtesy Reuters)