TOKYO • North Korea may have the capacity to launch a warhead loaded with sarin nerve gas, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday, as tensions rise over the country's missile and nuclear programmes.
Sarin has been used in domestic attacks in Japan, notably in 1995, when the Aum Supreme Truth cult released it in the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people and injuring 600.
The United States believes that the Syrian government employed a sarin-like nerve agent in a deadly attack in Syria last week.
"There is a possibility that North Korea is already capable of delivering (via missile) a warhead containing sarin," Mr Abe told a parliamentary diplomacy and defence committee, reported major Japanese media outlets. He did not say where he obtained the information, said the reports.
But Mr Yoshihide Suga, the government's chief spokesman, elaborated later when asked about the comments at a regular briefing.
Number of people killed when sarin was used in the 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway.
"Referring to the Syrian situation, our Prime Minister displayed a recognition that we can't deny the possibility that North Korea can equip (a missile) with chemical weapons," he said. "North Korea... is likely to maintain several facilities to produce chemical weapons, and already possesses a considerable number of them."
Originally conceived as a pesticide, sarin was used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime to gas thousands of Kurds in the northern town of Halabja in 1988.
Tensions in the Korean peninsula have spiked amid concerns that Pyongyang could be on the verge of conducting its sixth nuclear test and as a US aircraft carrier-led strike group heads to the region.
A Washington-based think-tank that monitors North Korea, 38 North, said satellite images taken on Wednesday showed continued activity around the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that indicated it was ready for a new test. New satellite images suggest North Korea might soon conduct another underground detonation.
Experts examining satellite images have observed a wide range of activity at Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri test site.
Beneath the mountain, a system of tunnels has been prepared for the past five detonations of nu- clear bombs.
North Korea often marks signifi- cant dates with a show of military force, and analysts say it might detonate a nuclear weapon to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of the nation's founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong Un, tomorrow.
Downplaying the risk of war, South Korea said it believed it would be consulted by the US before any possible pre-emptive US strike against Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, US officials say an oil embargo is among tougher sanctions that Washington could impose on North Korea. It has virtually no domestic oil production and has traditionally imported oil from China and Russia. North Korea relies mainly on domestic coal, but oil is used by the military as well as in transport and agriculture.
US President Donald Trump said in a tweet yesterday: "I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies, will!"
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS