North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has decided to delay his decision on firing missiles toward Guam while he waits to see what the United States does, the North’s state media reported on Tuesday as the United States said any dialogue was up to Kim.
The apparent pause in escalating tensions came after US President Donald Trump warned of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if Pyongyang persisted with its threats.
The United States and South Korea have prepared for more joint military drills, which infuriated belligerent North Korea, and experts warned that Pyongyang could still go ahead with a provocative plan.
In his first public appearance in about two weeks, Kim inspected the command of the North Korea’s army on Monday, examining a plan to fire four missiles aimed at landing near the US Pacific territory of Guam, the official KCNA news agency reported.
“He said that if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity, testing the self-restraint of the DPRK, the latter will make an important decision as it already declared,” KCNA said.
The DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pyongyang’s plans to fire missiles near Guam prompted a surge in tensions in the region last week, with US President Donald Trump saying the US military was “locked and loaded” if North Korea acted unwisely.
But US officials have taken a gentler tone in recent days.
Asked by reporters on Tuesday about the North Korean delay, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it was up to Kim to decide if he wants to talk to the United States.
“We continue to be interested in finding a way to get to dialogue but that’s up to him,” Tillerson told reporters.
In photos released with the KCNA report, Kim was seen holding a baton and pointing at a map showing a flight path for the missiles appearing to start from North Korea’s east coast, flying over Japan toward Guam.
North Korea has often threatened to attack the United States and its bases and released similar photos in the past but never followed through.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday his government would prevent war by all means.
“Military action on the Korean peninsula can only be decided by South Korea and no one else can decide to take military action without the consent of South Korea,” Moon said in a speech to commemorate the anniversary of the nation’s liberation from Japanese military rule in 1945.
“The government, putting everything on the line, will block war by all means,” Moon said.
The Liberation Day holiday, celebrated by both North and South, will be followed next week by joint US-South Korean military drills.
Asian shares rose for a second day on Tuesday after Kim’s comments. The US dollar and Treasury yields climbed after solid US retail data and the easing in US-North Korean rhetoric.
North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs to ward off perceived US hostility, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions and sanctions.
A new study by a London-based think tank and an article in the New York Times that cited it said North Korea had obtained rocket engines probably from a Ukrainian factory via illicit networks.
But US intelligence officials said on Tuesday that North Korea has the ability to produce its own missile engines and intelligence suggests the country does not need to rely on imports.
Japan will seek further reassurance from Washington in meetings between Japan’s defense chief and foreign minister and their US counterparts on Thursday.
“The strategic environment is becoming harsher and we need to discuss how we will respond to that,” a Japanese foreign ministry official said in a briefing in Tokyo.
“We will look for the US to reaffirm its defense commitment, including the nuclear deterrent.
China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has repeatedly urged Pyongyang to halt its weapons program and at the same time urged South Korea and the United States to stop military drills to lower tensions.
In bowing to pressure, China has vowed to stop importing coal, iron, iron ore and seafood from North Korea.
The move is an implementation of UN sanctions, which were imposed in response to North Korea’s two missile tests last month.
China accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s international trade.
Beijing had pledged to fully enforce the sanctions after the US accused it of not doing enough to rein in its neighbour.
The UN approved sanctions against Pyongyang earlier this month that could cost the country $1bn (£770m) a year in revenue, according to the figures provided to the Security Council by the US delegation.
Although China’s coal imports from North Korea totalled $1.2bn last year, the figure will be much lower this year because China had already imposed a ban in February, experts said.
“China has already imported its quota of coal under sanctions for 2017. So no net impact there, and North Korean exports to other countries are minimal,” said David Von Hippel, from the Nautilus Institute -a think tank based in Oregon -who has researched North Korea’s coal sector.
The sanctions might have more of an impact on iron and seafood, experts said.
Although they are both much smaller sources of export revenue for North Korea, the two industries have seen a rise in exports this year.
Iron ore exports grew to $74.4m in the first five months of this year, almost equalling the figure for all of 2016. Fish and seafood imports totalled $46.7m in June, up from $13.6m in May.
The sanctions do not apply to the growing clothing assembly industry in North Korea.
The sanctions came against a backdrop of increased tensions between the US and North Korea, as well as heightened trade tensions between the US and China.
On Monday, the US President Donald Trump ordered a trade probe into China’s alleged theft of US intellectual property, which the Chinese state press saw as an attempt to force China to act more decisively on North Korea.
Officially, the US has denied any link between the two issues, although the president had previously suggested he might take a softer line on China in exchange for help on North Korea.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor and military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, urged caution in assuming North Korea was bluffing with its missile threats.
“There is no stepping back for North Korea. Those who don’t know the North very well fall into this trap every time (thinking they are easing threats) but we’ve seen this before.”
The United States and South Korea remain technically at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
North Korea is currently holding three US citizens it accuses of espionage or hostile acts, but now is not the right time to discuss them, KCNA reported, citing a foreign ministry spokesman.
Pyongyang has used detainees to extract concessions, including high-profile visitors from the United States, which has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Source: Reuters, BBC
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