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John Kerry pushes for talks as North Korea threatens defiant missile launch

There is speculation that North Korea will try a missile test today to coincide with birthday celebrations for former leader Kim Il-Sung.

A South Korean soldier aims a machine gun during a drill preparing for terrorist attacks in Seoul today
A South Korean soldier aims a machine gun during a drill preparing for terrorist attacks in Seoul today
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

US SECRETARY OF State John Kerry pushed a message of dialogue with North Korea at the end of his tour of Asia today, as the world watched to see if Pyongyang will go ahead with a defiant missile launch.

The North has a habit of linking high-profile military tests with key dates, and expectations were high of a medium-range missile test to coincide with Monday’s birthday celebrations for its late founding leader Kim Il-Sung.

Kerry’s whirlwind tour of South Korea, China and Japan was dominated by North Korea and the soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the top US diplomat stressing a willingness to ‘reach out’ to Pyongyang.

Kerry, who met with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the final leg of his trip in Tokyo today, said Washington was open to “authentic and credible” negotiations.

“But the burden is on Pyongyang,” he said, adding that the North had to take “meaningful steps” to show it would honour past commitments.

Already assured of the support of US allies South Korea and Japan, Kerry said a commitment he received from China to work together to reduce tensions showed the world was speaking with one voice. He said:

One thing is certain: we are united. There can be no confusion on this point.

John Kerry speaking today (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa)

The Korean peninsula has been in a state of heightened military tension since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.

Incensed by fresh UN sanctions and joint South Korea-US military exercises, Pyongyang has spent weeks issuing blistering threats of missile strikes and nuclear war.

Washington insists that the “six-party” talks on denuclearisation – which take in both Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the US – is the only forum at which it will sit with Pyongyang.

‘Crafty trick’

In Seoul, Kerry gave Washington’s public blessing to peace overtures made by South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-Hye, who in recent days has signalled the need to open a dialogue and “listen to what North Korea thinks”.

But the North rejected the overtures as a “crafty trick” to conceal Seoul’s aggressive intentions.

“It is very regrettable that the North dismissed our offer,” the South’s Unification Ministry said today, labelling Pyongyang’s response “totally incomprehensible”.

Birthday events

South Korean soldiers walk among barricades near the border town of Panmunjom which separates the two Koreas (Photo: AP Photo/Lee Jim-man)

North Korea’s current leader and Kim Il-Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-Un, opened Monday’s birthday events with a visit to the mausoleum in Pyongyang housing the embalmed bodies of his grandfather and his father Kim Jong-Il.

State television interspersed musical programming with patriotic films, documentaries on the life of Kim Il-Sung and footage of Korean soldiers honing their martial arts skills.

The missiles mobilised by the North for a possible launch are reported to be untested Musudan models with an estimated range of up to 4,000 kilometres.

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That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.

South Korean and US forces have been on a heightened state of alert for days, and Japan has deployed Patriot anti-missile systems around Tokyo and promised to shoot down any missile deemed to be a threat.

South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said the alert would remain in force even in the absence of a missile launch on Monday.

“We believe the situation may drag on for quite a while,” Kim said.

South Korean soldiers hold their positions at a barbed wire fence near the border village of Panmunjom today (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

In Seoul on Friday, Kerry said a launch in the current climate would be a “huge mistake” and the next day in Beijing he pressed Chinese leaders to take a firmer stand with North Korea.

China is Pyongyang’s sole major ally and backer, and is widely seen as the only country with leverage to influence its actions.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se told a media conference in Seoul on Monday that the North risked alienating its old ally completely.

“As long as North Korea continues to make provocations, North Korea will be perceived by people in China as more of a liability than an asset,” Yun said.

- © AFP, 2013

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