April 25, 2017 2:50 pm JST

US, allies on high alert as North Korea holds firing drill

Pyongyang uses long-range artillery in latest provocation

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO -- The U.S., Japan and South Korea on Tuesday kept their forces on high alert, wary of how North Korea might celebrate the 85th anniversary of its armed forces.

The international community has been fretting that the regime of Kim Jong Un might stage another missile or nuclear test to mark the anniversary -- and to show its defiance against renewed international pressure.

Pyongyang settled for something less, a large-scale firing drill on its east coast, according to Yonhap News Agency. Leader Kim Jong Un watched over the exercise, which involved long-range artillery and was one of the largest ever, Yonhap said.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, chief negotiators from the U.S., Japan and South Korea also gathered to coordinate their policies on Pyongyang, with Washington pressing for further sanctions against the communist country.

U.S. President Donald Trump has raised the possibility of a military strike against North Korea, should it refuse to give up its missile and nuclear weapons programs. Concerns have grown that the country is on its way to acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.

"This is a real threat to the world," Trump said Monday as he hosted a meeting with ambassadors from countries on the U.N. Security Council.

Calling the status quo "unacceptable," he urged the 15-member council to "to impose additional and stronger sanctions" on North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

On Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will attend a special ministerial meeting of the Security Council in a bid to form a united front among the members to deal decisively with any further missile or nuclear provocations from North Korea.

And on Wednesday, the White House will hold a briefing for all 100 U.S. senators. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford will be among those speaking to the senators.

North Korea is rapidly improving its missile and nuclear capabilities. It conducted two nuclear tests and test-fired more than 20 ballistic missiles last year alone, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Washington's posture toward the threat changed dramatically after Trump was inaugurated. Recently, a naval strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier has been heading to waters near the Korean Peninsula.

Vessels from Japan's Martime Self-Defense Force are to join it for drills in the Sea of Japan.

China, North Korea's main diplomatic and economic benefactor, is seen getting on board with the U.S. and its allies to bring to a halt the North Korean weapons programs.

Wu Dawei, Beijing's envoy on North Korean issues, is in Tokyo to hold talks with Japanese officials on Tuesday.

In the past, China had hosted six-party talks involving the U.S., Japan, Russia and the two Koreas. The talks were an attempt to persuade Pyongyang to give up its weapons programs. The parties met on and off but without much success.

The Trump administration itself seems to hold some hope for a diplomatic solution. Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday told reporters, "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."

On Monday, Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping by phone and "reaffirmed the urgency of the threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs," according to the White House. The Chinese leader expressed hopes that all countries involved will show restraint and avoid further heightening tensions.

Meanwhile, 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, regardless of whether 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.

Were China to take bolder measures, such as imposing an oil embargo, there would be no telling how North Korea might react.

China also seems to be be dangling a carrot -- Air China, the country's flag carrier, is set to resume Beijing-Pyongyang flights on May 5, according to a report. Service has been suspended since April 14.

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