SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean and U.S. troops began naval drills that involve live-fire exercises and submarine detection drills today in a show of force partly directed at North Korea amid signs that Pyongyang will soon carry out a threat to conduct its third atomic test.
The region is also seeing a boost in diplomatic activity focused on North Korea’s announcement last month that it will conduct a nuclear test to protest international sanctions toughened over Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch in December.
Pyongyang’s two previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, both occurred after it was slapped with increased sanctions for similar rocket launches. The U.S., South Korea and other countries have urged North Korea to scrap its nuclear test plans or face grave consequences.
North Korea’s state media said Sunday that at a high-level Workers’ Party meeting, leader Kim Jong Un issued “important” guidelines meant to bolster the army and protect national sovereignty. North Korea didn’t elaborate, but the guidelines likely refer to a nuclear test and suggest that Pyongyang appears to have completed formal procedural steps and is preparing to conduct a nuclear test soon, according to South Korean analyst Hong Hyun-ik.
“We assess that North Korea has almost finished preparations for conducting a nuclear test anytime and all that’s left is North Korea making a political decision,” a Defense Ministry spokesman said today.
Meanwhile, diplomats are meeting to find ways to persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear test plans. New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan held a telephone conversation Sunday night and agreed to sternly deal with any possible nuclear provocation by North Korea, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
South Korea on Sunday also sent its top nuclear negotiator to China, the North’s main ally and aid benefactor, for talks, the ministry said in a statement.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the maneuvers had been scheduled before the latest nuclear tensions began.