SEOUL | Leaders here and in Washington offered cautionary responses Tuesday to North Korea’s latest threat that “thermonuclear war” is imminent, as Japan announced deployment of ballistic-missile interceptors to key locations around Tokyo in preparation for a possible test or attack launch by Pyongyang.
South Korea’s foreign minister asserted that “North Korea must understand that there is nothing — absolutely nothing — to be gained by threats and provocations,” as the nation’s president, Park Geun-hye, lamented the ongoing and seemingly “endless vicious cycle” in which Seoul and others respond gently only to be met by more antagonism from Pyongyang.
The remarks dovetailed with assertions in Washington by White House spokesman Jay Carney that Pyongyang’s rhetoric is serving “only to escalate tensions” and “further isolate” North Korea from the international community.
There were no reports of a military buildup Tuesday in Pyongyang, but the North Korean government made international headlines by urging foreign companies and tourists to evacuate South Korea and claiming the two nations are on the verge of a nuclear war.
”The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching close to a thermonuclear war due to the ever more undisguised hostile actions of the United States and the South Korean puppet warmongers and their moves for a war against” the North, said a statement by the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a state-run organization.
With the rhetorical tit-for-tat by both sides appearing to reach a new apex, the top American military commander in the Pacific said that if North Korea launches a ballistic missile, U.S. forces in the region are fully capable of intercepting it.
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Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, who overseas U.S. forces from Guam to South Korea and Japan, responded in the affirmative Tuesday when Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, asked him during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing whether the U.S. has the “capability to intercept a missile if the North Koreans launch within the next several days.”
Adm. Locklear and other leaders have stressed that Pyongyang’s threats are likely just the bluster of 28-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as he attempts to shore up his power base in the nation, but the exchange in the Senate underscored how seriously the militaries of the U.S. and its allies are taking the rhetoric.
Earlier Tuesday, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a speech that the “umbrella” of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and missile defense remains firmly in place over America’s allies in Asia, regardless of North Korea’s provocations.
“We will continue to provide the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella and will ensure that all of its capabilities remain available” to U.S. allies, Mr. Carter told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, according to prepared remarks posted on the Pentagon’s website.
He also reiterated America’s determination “to strengthen our missile defenses in order to keep ahead of North Korean ballistic missile development,” noting the recent deployment of sea- and land-based U.S. missile defenses in the region, “where they are poised to respond to any missile threats to our allies or our territory.
”Despite such reassurances, South Korea and Japan have been deploying their own missile defenses, a move likely to be watched closely in China, which relies on its nuclear missiles for strategic deterrence.Japanese leaders deployed Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile air-defense units to three locations in and around Tokyo on Tuesday, although the nation’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, declined to offer specifics of the action.
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“We’d like to refrain from explaining further because it would give away details of the cards we hold,” Mr. Suga said, according to a report by The Japan Times.
Last week, South Korea deployed two Aegis destroyers — one on each side of the peninsula — that can detect, track and intercept ballistic missiles, according to Arirang TV News. South Korea’s ground-based Green Pine radar and Peace Eye early warning and control aircraft are also being deployed to watch for a launch, Arirang reported.
On Tuesday, leaders in Seoul mostly emphasized to North Korea that if it abandons its threats, the international community will respond positively.
“The international community, including Korea, stands ready to help, should North Korea make the right choice,” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a speech at an annual reception hosted by the Asia Foundation in Seoul.
North Korea has claimed over the past few weeks to have scrapped the cease-fire that stopped the fighting in the Korean War, cut telephone hotlines to the South and warned foreign diplomats that their safety could be at risk if they remain in the capital, Pyongyang. The hostile moves followed the imposition of tougher U.N. sanctions after North Korea conducted a third nuclear test in February and ballistic missile test in December.
But there were no signs of war games in Pyongyang on Tuesday. News reports noted scores of North Koreans gathering on a cold spring day in the capital with shovels, not guns — busy planting trees as part of a forestation campaign.
The national flag fluttered across the city as North Korea marked the 20th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-il’s appointment as chairman of the National Defense Commission, and workers began preparing the city for the April 15 birthday of late President Kim Il-sung.
South Korea’s military has reported missile movements on North Korea’s east coast, but nothing pointed toward South Korea.
⦁ Shaun Waterman reported from Washington. Susan Crabtree in Washington also contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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