SEOUL/BEIJING • South Korea said yesterday it was on heightened alert 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.
United States officials said there was a higher-than-usual level of activity by Chinese bombers, signalling a possible heightened state of readiness by Beijing - reclusive North Korea's sole major ally - although the officials played down concerns and left open a range of possible reasons.
However, China's defence ministry yesterday said Chinese forces on the country's border with North Korea maintained a state of normal combat preparedness and training.
US 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 both the US and China have warned against.
North Korea marks the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People's Army next Tuesday, an important anniversary that comes at the end of major winter military drills, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Duk Haeng said.
We are watching the situation closely and will not be letting our guard down.
MR LEE DUK HAENG, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman, on the threat from North Korea.
Top envoys from the US, South Korea and Japan are due to meet on Tuesday, South Korea's foreign ministry said, to "discuss plans to rein in North Korea's additional high-strength provocations, to maximise pressure on the North and to ensure China's constructive role in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue". South Korea and the US have also been conducting annual joint military exercises, which the North criticises as a prelude to invasion.
"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-US military drills," said Mr Lee. The joint exercises are due to finish at the end of this month.
"We are watching the situation closely and will not be letting our guard down," Mr Lee said.
US President Donald Trump on Thursday praised Chinese efforts to rein in "the menace of North Korea", after North Korean state media warned the US of a "super mighty pre-emptive strike".
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said yesterday North Korea's rhetoric was provocative, but he had learnt not to trust it.
Mr Trump has told a news conference "some very unusual moves have been made over the last two or three hours", and that he was confident Chinese President Xi Jinping would "try very hard" to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Mr Trump gave no indication on what the moves might be. None of the US officials who spoke about the heightened level of activity by Chinese bombers suggested alarm.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang referred questions about the air force to the defence ministry. Asked about Mr Trump's comment about Mr Xi trying hard to pressure the North, Mr Lu said the two leaders had a full and deep discussion about North Korea when they met earlier this month.
Mr Lu also reiterated China's position that it upholds the use of dialogue in resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula. He also said China is seriously enforcing its ban, in place since February, on North Korean coal imports, and there have been no violations.
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