April 25, 2017 6:00 am JST

US turns up heat on North Korea as national milestone nears

Washington pressures Beijing to take harder line on neighbor

TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writer, and TETSUSHI TAKAHASHI, Nikkei deputy editor

The USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, apparently sailing through the Sunda Strait near Indonesia on April 15. (Image from US Navy website)

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- With the 85th anniversary of the Korean People's Army coming up Tuesday, the U.S. is watching warily for provocations by North Korea, as well as pressing China to take decisive action given its key position.

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping separately by phone. The leaders agreed that North Korea should show restraint.

After their call, Abe praised Trump's ability to "demonstrate with his words and actions that all options are on the table." The mention of "actions" is a clear reference to a show of military force by Washington.

An American naval strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which is headed north to waters off the Korean Peninsula, plans to conduct joint drills with vessels from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Sea of Japan. The ultimate aim is to monitor Pyongyang's actions and serve as a check on the country.

The Carl Vinson and Maritime SDF vessels held exercises together twice last month in the East China Sea, which lies further south. "Holding joint drills in the Sea of Japan at this stage will demonstrate our firm resolve," a Japanese government insider said.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, remains unshaken in its opposition to Washington and looks prepared for further provocations, such as a sixth nuclear test. A steady stream of threats have been issued against the U.S. in hopes of forcing it to back down. "Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a single strike," Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party, said in a commentary Sunday as quoted by Reuters.

Another central element of the Trump administration's North Korea policy is dialogue and diplomacy via China, on which North Korea relies economically.

"We truly believe that as our allies in the region and China bring that pressure to bear that there is a chance that we can achieve a historic objective of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula by peaceable means," U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

In Monday's call, Trump likely urged Xi to exercise Beijing's influence over Pyongyang. The Chinese leader expressed hopes that all countries involved will show restraint and avoid heightening tensions on the peninsula. But he made no mention of a "peaceful resolution" as he has in the past, fueling speculation about a shift in stance. China, seeking to avoid chaos on the Korean Peninsula by any means necessary, is undoubtedly turning the screws on Pyongyang at Washington's behest.

Rumors are swirling about a Chinese military buildup on the border with North Korea, though China's Ministry of National Defense has denied this. Such talk will pile pressure on Pyongyang whether or not it proves accurate. Xi's decision not to mention a "peaceful resolution" when talking with Trump may have been meant to send a similar message.

But if China takes bolder measures, such as imposing an oil embargo, it cannot be sure how North Korea might react. Beijing cannot go too far lest it become a target of Pyongyang's ire.

China and North Korea "are friendly neighbors and have maintained friendly exchanges," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday, implying that diplomatic efforts continue behind the scenes.

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