Amid growing concerns about North Korea’s missile program, the US military has ordered a navy strike group to move towards the Korean peninsula.
The Carl Vinson Strike Group comprises an aircraft carrier and other warships.
US Pacific Command described the deployment – now heading towards the western Pacific – as a prudent measure to maintain readiness in the region.
President Donald Trump has said the US is prepared to act alone to deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea.
US Pacific Command spokesman Dave Benham said: “The number one threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”
The Carl Vinson Strike Group comprises the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, two guided-missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser.
Image source Wikimedia
As well as massive striking power, the strike group has the capability to intercept ballistic missiles.
The group was originally due to make port calls in Australia but instead has been diverted from Singapore to the west Pacific – where it recently conducted exercises with the South Korean Navy.
North Korea has carried out several nuclear tests and experts predict more could be in the offing as the country moves closer towards developing a nuclear warhead with a big enough range to reach the US.
South Korea has issued a cyber alert after a hacking attack on government websites.
The website of the presidential office was one of several official and media sites hit by an apparently co-ordinated attack on Tuesday morning, reports said.
The identity of the hackers was not known, a government statement said.
The incident came on the anniversary of the start of the 1950-53 Korean War, which divided the Korean peninsula.
“The government can confirm a cyber attack by unidentified hackers that shut down several sites including the Blue House,” the Science Ministry said in a statement, referring to the presidential office.
The website for the office for Government Policy Co-ordination and some media servers were also said to be affected by the attack.
South Korea has issued a cyber alert after a hacking attack on government websites
Messages praising North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and claiming that hacking collective Anonymous was responsible were left on the hacked websites.
However, Anonymous denied any involvement in the South Korean cyber-attacks on its official Twitter account, AFP news agency reported.
Instead, the “hacktivist” group was said to have planned attacks against North Korean websites.
A number of North Korean websites went offline on Tuesday morning and appeared to have been targeted by hackers on Tuesday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed sources.
These included the websites of North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, newspaper Rodong Sinmun, and portal Naenara.
Anonymous has previously claimed to have hacked and vandalized social networking profiles linked to North Korea as part of its Operation Free Korea.
South Korea has raised its cyber-alert level, and asked citizens to review their internet security.
South Korean investigators say North Korea has frequently carried out cyber attacks in the South.
On March 20, cyber attacks on six South Korean banks and broadcasters affected 32,000 computers and disrupted banking services.
South Korea has blamed that incident – which came at a time of heightened tensions between the two Koreas following Pyongyang’s nuclear test on February 12 – on North Korea.
North Korea has also been blamed for previous cyber attacks in 2009 and 2011.
North Korea has proposed high-level talks with the United States, days after cancelling a meeting with South Korean officials.
The National Defense Commission said in a statement it wanted “serious discussions” with the US to “secure peace and stability in the region”.
US and North Korean officials meet periodically, but have not engaged in high-level talks since 2009.
Earlier this year Pyongyang threatened to launch a nuclear attack on both the US and South Korea.
For years the North has cajoled the US and regional neighbors with a mixture of dire threats and promises of co-operation.
Correspondents say Pyongyang is constantly trying to improve its bargaining position to extract more food aid or fuel.
However, the regime has conducted three nuclear-weapons tests in recent years that have even angered its only ally, China.
Beijing co-authored a Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions on the regime earlier this year in response to its latest nuclear test.
North Korea has proposed high-level talks with the United States
The North responded with increasingly hysterical threats, cut hotlines used for emergency communication with the South and withdrew workers from a joint industrial park near the border.
Pyongyang finally agreeing to open talks with the South earlier this week.
But on Thursday, the North cancelled the meeting, accusing the South of “deliberate disturbance” by changing the head of its delegation.
On Friday, Pyongyang issued an appeal calling on the South to change fundamentally its “policy of confrontation”.
The National Defense Commission on Sunday said that in the meantime it proposed “high-level talks between the North and the US to secure peace and stability in the region and ease tension on the Korean peninsula”.
The commission said it was willing to have “serious discussions on a wide range of issues, including the US goal to achieve the world free of nuclear arsenal”.
Washington could decide the time and venue, but there should be no preconditions, the statement said.
The National Defense Commission is headed by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father in December 2011.
For years, delegates from North Korea engaged with the US, Russia, South Korea, Japan and China in talks over its nuclear programme.
The regime was rewarded with food and fuel aid when it gave concessions, such as destroying a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant in 2008.
However, North Korea walked out of the talks in April 2009 after the UN criticized a rocket launch.
China has called on North Korea to secure the release of a fishing boat and its crew seized earlier this month.
Owner Yu Xuejun said the vessel had been in Chinese waters when the 16-man crew were seized on May 5.
Yu Xuejun said the North Korean captors were demanding a 600,000 yuan ($100,000) ransom.
State-run Xinhua news agency said that diplomats in Pyongyang had been asked for help on May 10 and were working on the issue.
“Upon receiving the call, the Chinese embassy promptly made representations to the… DPRK [North Korean] Foreign Ministry, asking the DPRK side to release the boat and the fishermen as soon as possible,” the agency quoted Counsellor Jiang Yaxian of Beijing’s embassy in Pyongyang as saying.
It called for the crews’ “legitimate rights and interests” to be safeguarded, he added.
Boat-owner Yu Xuejun told Global Times newspaper he had received eight calls from the people holding his crew demanding the ransom.
There have been incidents in the past in the Yellow Sea, which lies between China and the Korean peninsula and has rich fishing grounds.
In May 2012, 29 Chinese fishermen and three vessels were seized by unidentified North Koreans.
China has called on North Korea to secure the release of Yu Xuejun’s fishing boat and its crew seized earlier this month
They were freed after two weeks and it was not clear whether a ransom had been paid, nor whether the captors had been the North Korean authorities or autonomous kidnappers.
China has traditionally been North Korea’s closest ally. But in the wake of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, on February 12, ties between the two have chilled.
Beijing backed expanded sanctions on Pyongyang over the test and some of its banks have suspended transactions with North Korea’s main foreign exchange bank.
Chinese state press has also become more vocal on the issue, openly debating the merits of alliance with Pyongyang.
Since Saturday, North Korea has fired five short-range missiles off its coast: three on Saturday, and one on both Sunday and Monday.
“North Korea again launched what appears to be a KN-02 short-range missile,” a defense ministry official told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Monday.
“We are closely watching the movements of the North’s military in case of further launches.”
The tests also prompted a warning from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.
“I hope that North Korea will refrain from such actions,” Ban ki-moon, who was visiting Moscow, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
“It is time for them to resume dialogue and lower the tensions.”
North Korea routinely test-fires these kinds of missiles, but such a sustained launch period is unusual.
There is worry in South Korea that, after suspending the joint Korean economic zone Kaesong Industrial Complex, and restarting its mothballed nuclear facility, North Korea is planning further actions that may ignite an international response.
North Korea has launched three short-range missiles from its east coast, South Korea’s defence ministry said.
Two missiles were fired on Saturday morning and one in the afternoon, the South Korean ministry said in a statement.
Officials at the ministry said they were “monitoring the situation and remain on alert”.
The launches come at a time of stalemate between the two neighbors following weeks of high tension earlier this year.
Saturday’s missiles were fired in a north-east direction, and did not pose the same threat as the intermediate-range missiles Pyongyang was believed to have deployed along its coastline last month.
It removed them from the launch site early in May, indicating a lowering of tension on the peninsula, a US official said.
North Korea has launched three short-range missiles from its east coast
Such launches are routinely carried out by North Korea.
Tensions were high last month amid threats from North Korea to attack Japanese, South Korean and US military targets in the region and restart a mothballed nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for its weapons programme.
Pyongyang also shut down an emergency military hotline with South Korea, and withdrew some 53,000 workers from the Kaesong factory zone on its border with South Korea.
The threats followed tough new UN sanctions imposed on North Korea in March after its third nuclear test, as well as annual US-South Korea military drills that saw nuclear-capable B2 and B52 bombers flown over the Korean peninsula.
Divided Korea’s fragile peace:
Korea was occupied by the Allies after WWII ending decades of rule by Japan
Soviets occupied the north and the US the south, but as allies became Cold War rivals, unification talks failed and separate regimes evolved
In 1950, the Korean War saw Mao’s China back communist North Korea, while the US helped South Korea, fearing Asia would turn communist
A 1953 armistice created a fragile peace, and border tensions have lasted ever since
US Secretary of State John Kerry has hailed China for being “very serious” about a pledge to help resolve tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
The US and China earlier said they were committed to the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula.
John Kerry said the two sides would hold further meetings “to bear down very quickly” on how to achieve that goal.
North Korea has recently threatened attacks against South Korea and the US, amid a flurry of bellicose statements.
Speculation has also built that the North was preparing a missile launch, following reports that it had moved at least two Musudan ballistic missiles to its east coast.
John Kerry has said any such launch would be a “huge mistake”.
After a day of meetings in Beijing with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials on Saturday, he said both governments called on North Korea “to refrain from any provocative steps and that obviously refers to any future missile shoot”.
State John Kerry has hailed China for being “very serious” about a pledge to help resolve tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme
John Kerry, who is on a four-day tour of Asia, continues to Japan on Sunday.
Following John Kerry’s meetings, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi said his country’s position was “clear cut”.
“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula,” he said, adding that the issue should be resolved “peacefully through dialogue”.
No specifics were given, though John Kerry said the two sides would hold “further discussions to bear down very quickly with great specificity on exactly how we will accomplish this goal”.
He later told reporters that the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, would visit Beijing later this month accompanied by intelligence officials.
He said he wanted to ensure that the pledges made on Saturday were “not just rhetoric”, adding: “There is no question in my mind that China is very serious – very serious – about denuclearizing.”
China is North Korea’s only ally and major trading partner, but has grown increasingly frustrated with its growing belligerence.
However, persuading China to increase the pressure on North Korea will not be easy.
China is still North Korea’s lifeline, and Beijing is unlikely to cut vital supplies of food and fuel since it feels that may make the North even more desperate and unpredictable.
On Saturday John Kerry raised the prospect that if North Korea stopped its nuclear programme – “if the threat disappears” – then the US would no longer have “the same imperative… to have that kind of robust, forward-leaning posture”.
Since the UN imposed fresh sanctions on North Korea in February in response to its third nuclear test, Pyongyang has promised to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor and threatened a nuclear strike against the US mainland.
It has also shut an emergency military hotline to South Korea, and urged diplomatic staff to leave, saying it cannot guarantee their safety.
North Korea says it has also been angered by joint US-South Korean military exercises.
On Saturday, a commentary piece on Chinese state news agency Xinhua said Washington had itself “been fanning the flames” by sending military reinforcements to the region.
But during his trip, John Kerry has stressed that the US has tried to tone down its own statements, and cancelled some military exercises in an effort to defuse tension.
Though North Korea’s rhetoric has been more bellicose than usual, analysts say it fits a long-standing pattern, and may be intended to boost the popularity of Kim Jong-un, who came to power last year.
Foreign embassies in Pyongyang have played down warnings from the North Korean government over their safety in the event of a war.
Yesterday North Korea warned it would not be able to guarantee the safety of embassy staff in case of a war on the peninsula.
The US and South Korean officials have sought to play down fears of a conflict on the Korean peninsula in recent days.
No foreign embassies have announced plans to evacuate, and the UK and Russian embassies have said they have no immediate plans to shut their embassies.
Meanwhile China, traditionally a North Korean ally, has reportedly urged dialogue between North Korea and the international community.
Foreign embassies in Pyongyang have played down warnings from the North Korean government over their safety in the event of a war
On Saturday Chinese media reported telephone discussions between the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon.
The talks stressed that dialogue was the only way forward and that “China would not allow any trouble at its door step”.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, is due to visit China in the coming week, along with South Korea and Japan, where talks are expected to focus on North Korea’s nuclear programme and escalating threats against the US and its allies.
US officials have said they would not be surprised if North Korea launched a missile, and are moving a missile defense system to its Pacific island territory of Guam.
They has also played down fears of an all-out conflict on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has issued a series of unusually strong threats since it was sanctioned by the UN in March for having carried out a third nuclear test.
It has threatened nuclear strikes on the US, formally declared war on the South, and pledged to reopen a nuclear reactor in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
The movement of missiles within North Korea has sparked concern, but it is not clear how well developed its missile technology is.
North Korea has not taken direct military action since 2010, when it shelled a South Korean island and killed four people.
North Korea has announced it will restart the facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, including a reactor mothballed in 2007.
In a statement, it has been announced that the move would bolster North Korea’s nuclear forces “in quality and quantity”.
North Korea has announced it will restart the facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, including a reactor mothballed in 2007
The move is the latest in a series of measures by Pyongyang in the wake of its third nuclear test in February 12.
North Korea has been angered by the resultant UN sanctions and joint US-South Korea annual military drills.
In recent weeks North Korea has issued a series of threats against both South Korean and US targets, to which the US has responded with high-profile movements of advanced aircraft and warships around the Korean peninsula.
The reactor at Yongbyon – which was the source for plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme – was closed in July 2007 as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal.
The cooling tower at the facility was later destroyed, but then the disarmament deal stalled.
Part of the reason the agreement fell apart was because the US and North Korea’s other negotiating partners did not believe Pyongyang was fully disclosing all of its nuclear facilities.
The statement, carried by KCNA news agency, was attributed to a spokesman for the General Department of Atomic Energy.
The General Department of Atomic Energy had decided “to adjust and alter the uses of the existing nuclear facilities” including “readjusting and restarting all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon [Yongbyon]”.
The work would be put into practice without delay, the statement said.
The US is flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over South Korea, in what it says is a response to escalating North Korean rhetoric.
US officials said the B-52 flights demonstrated “extended deterrence capabilities” amid rising tension on the peninsula.
B-52, which can also carry conventional weapons, flew on March 8, with another mission set for Tuesday.
Regional tension remains high following North’s third nuclear test last month.
This is not the first time that B-52 bombers have been used as part of regular military drills between the US and South Korea.
“We’re drawing attention to the fact that we have extended deterrence capabilities that we believe are important to demonstrate in the wake of recent North Korean rhetoric,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said.
“As North Korea threatened to attack South Korea with nuclear weapons, the exercise involving B-52s is meaningful, as it shows US commitment to provide its nuclear umbrella on the Korean peninsula,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for South Korea’s Defence Ministry.
US Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter affirmed this commitment on Monday during a visit to Seoul.
The US last week also announced plans to boost its own missile defences in the face of a growing threat from North Korea, a move over which both China and Russia have expressed concern.
The US is flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over South Korea, in what it says is a response to escalating North Korean rhetoric
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said it would “intensify antagonism”, rather than improving regional stability.The UN imposed fresh sanctions against North Korea following its nuclear test on February 12.
Pyongyang has responded with strong rhetoric to this and the US-South Korea joint military drills, which it bitterly opposes.
It says it has scrapped the Korean War armistice and ended non-aggression pacts with Seoul. It has also cut off a hotline that connects the two countries.
The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a treaty.
South Korea says North Korea cannot unilaterally dissolve the armistice and has called on Pyongyang to tone down its language.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday called for North Korea to take a different approach.
“North Korea is wasting resources for nuclear development while its people are living very difficult lives,” she said.
China has appealed for calm on the Korean peninsula, hours after North Korea said it had ended all non-aggression pacts with South Korea and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
China, North Korea’s only major ally, said all sides should continue to talk and avoid “further escalation”.
Pyongyang has reacted angrily to another round of sanctions imposed by the UN over its recent nuclear test.
The sanctions restrict luxury goods imports and banking activities.
Beijing provides fuel, food and diplomatic cover to Pyongyang.
It has repeatedly voted in favor of UN sanctions imposed over the nuclear programme, but enforcement of the measures in China is patchy.
Hua Chunying of China’s foreign ministry told a news conference on Friday: “China and North Korea have normal country relations. At the same time, we also oppose North Korea’s conducting of nuclear tests.
“China calls on the relevant parties to be calm and exercise restraint and avoid taking any further action that would cause any further escalations.”
China has appealed for calm on the Korean peninsula, hours after North Korea said it had ended all non-aggression pacts with South Korea and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes
Chinese and US officials drafted the UN resolution passed on Thursday.
It contains similar measures to earlier resolutions, but the US said it had significantly strengthened the enforcement mechanisms.
In response, the North Korean regime published a message on the official KCNA news agency saying it had cancelled all non-aggression pacts with the South.
The two Koreas have signed a range of agreements over the years, including a 1991 pact on resolving disputes and avoiding military clashes.
However, analysts say the deals have had little practical effect.
The KCNA report detailed other measures including:
cutting off the North-South hotline, saying there was “nothing to talk to the puppet group of traitors about”
closing the main Panmunjom border crossing inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries
pulling out of the armistice that ended the Korean War.
The North also claimed it had a right to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against its enemies.
The threat drew an angry response from South Korea’s defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok, who said that the North would become “extinct from the Earth by the will of mankind” if it took such an action.
The US state department said such “extreme rhetoric” was not unusual, but said the US was well protected.
North Korea has breached agreements before and withdrawing from them does not necessarily mean war, but it does signal a more unpredictable and unstable situation.