North Korea ready for missile test any time as South Korea-US drill approaches: Reports

North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept 3, and has launched more than a dozen missiles this year as leader Kim Jong Un's regime seeks the capability to hit the continental US with an atomic weapon. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korean military officials are readying for another possible missile launch by Pyongyang as they prepare for a joint military drill with the United States on the disputed peninsula this week.

Multiple South Korean media reports citing unidentified military officials on Saturday (Oct 14) and Sunday said North Korean missile vehicles "kept appearing and disappearing" from the map and "transporter erector launchers" had been spotted carrying ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang and North Pyongan province.

A joint military drill between the US and South Korea will be held from Monday through Friday, Yonhap reported on Sunday, citing an unidentified military source who said Pyongyang was ready to fire missiles "any time".

"Anything could happen especially before China's party convention on Oct 18 and during the time between post-drills and Trump's visits in the region," said professor Shin Beom Chul at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. "There is also the possibility for North Korea to test shorter-ranged ballistic missiles, which in the past did not lead to UN sanctions."

Historically, the North had tended not to provoke directly during the military drills.

North Korea's state-run media agency KCNA on Saturday criticised the joint military exercise, calling it a "reckless act of war maniacs".

Earlier, the White House said US President Donald Trump will travel to Asia from Nov 3-14, during which he will visit South Korea and possibly the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas.

As part of this week's drill, the US has deployed the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to South Korea. The US nuclear-powered submarine Michigan is also likely to take part.

Separately, US weapons systems including F-35A and F-22 stealth fighter jets, B-1B bombers and RQ-4 surveillance drones, will participate in the Seoul International Aerospace and Defence Exhibition being held from Tuesday through Friday, although they would not be armed, according to a Yonhap report.

North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept 3, and has launched more than a dozen missiles this year as leader Kim Jong Un's regime seeks the capability to hit the continental US with an atomic weapon. The United Nations has imposed stringent sanctions on North Korea for its weapons tests.

Mr Trump has said all options - including military - are on the table to stop Mr Kim, and the White House ruled out talks with Pyongyang.

A war of words has escalated between the two leaders in recent weeks, with Mr Trump labelling Mr Kim "Rocket Man" and telling the UN that the US would "totally destroy" North Korea if it attacks.

Mr Kim responded by calling Mr Trump a "dotard" and warning of the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history".

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho suggested last month that that could include testing a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. He later said the US had declared war and his country had the right to shoot down American warplanes flying in international airspace. The comments came shortly after US bombers and fighter jets flew near its eastern coastline.

North Korea on Sept 15 fired its second missile over Japan in as many months, a rocket that flew far enough to put the US territory of Guam in range. The country has repeatedly threatened to launch a missile near the American territory in the Pacific.

In July, North Korea fired two ICBMs on steep trajectories into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan. The regime said those launches put the entire US in its range.

North Korea also turned its focus on Australia at the weekend, warning the US ally of the risks of siding with Mr Trump.

Joining the US in seeking to increase pressure on North Korea would mean Australia "will not be able to avoid a disaster", the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Saturday cited a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

"Australia is showing dangerous moves of zealously joining the frenzied political and military provocations of the US," the spokesman was quoted as saying, citing Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's visit last week to South Korea.

China's Communist Party Congress, scheduled to open on Wednesday, could be a trigger for new provocative action by North Korea, Ms Bishop told reporters on Sunday. North Korea has sought in the past to embarrass China at times when the country is a focus of global attention, she said.

"There may be another provocative act by North Korea around the time of the 19th Party Congress," Ms Bishop said in Sydney. "We hope not, but this seems to have been a pattern of behaviour."

Ms Bishop and Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne last week visited South Korea, and the demilitarised zone that separates the country from its neighbour, backing potential tougher measures aimed at compelling North Korea to negotiate.

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