Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SKorea & U.S. Troops on high alert amid NKorea threats

from Yahoo News
By Hyung-jin Kim
Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean and U.S. troops facing North Korea boosted their alert level Thursday to the highest category since 2006, after the communist regime threatened military strikes on allied troops in escalating tensions over its nuclear test.

North Korea threatened Wednesday to attack any U.S. and South Korean ships that try to intercept its vessels and renounced a 1953 truce halting the Korean War fighting, raising the prospect of a naval clash off the Korean peninsula's west coast.

The North was responding to Seoul's decision to join a U.S.-led anti-proliferation program aimed at stopping and inspecting ships suspected of transporting banned weapons, including nuclear technology. South Korea announced it was joining after the North's underground test blast of a nuclear bomb.

On Thursday, the South Korea-U.S. combined forces command increased the surveillance to level 2 from the present level 3, Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said. He said that was the highest level since 2006, when the North conducted its first-ever nuclear test.

The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea.

Won said the bolstered level means more aviation surveillance assets, intelligence analysts and other intelligence-collecting measures would be deployed to watch North Korea. He refused to disclose further details.

The North has long warned it would consider the South's participation in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative as a declaration of war against North Korea.

The North would "deal a decisive and merciless retaliatory blow" to anyone trying to inspect its vessels, according to a North Korean military statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday.

Pyongyang lashed out at both the U.S. and South Korea, calling Seoul's move to join the Proliferation Security Initiative tantamount to a declaration of war and a violation of the truce keeping the peace between the two Koreas.

"Full participation in the PSI by a side on the Korean Peninsula where the state of military confrontation is growing acute and there is constant danger of military conflict itself means igniting a war," North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried on state media.

North Korea's army said it would be "illogical" to honor the 1953 armistice between the two Koreas, given the violations by the U.S. and South Korea, and said it could no longer promise the safety of U.S. and South Korean warships and civilian vessels in the waters near the maritime border.

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs played down North Korea's angry rhetoric, saying the threats will only add to its isolation.

He said North Korea has threatened to end the armistice many times in the past but the peace has held.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it voiced "serious concern" about the nuclear test to the North Korean ambassador and urged Pyongyang to respect the U.N. resolutions and return to the disarmament talks.

The truce signed in 1953 and subsequent military agreements call for both sides to refrain from warfare, but don't cover waters off the west coast. North Korea has used the maritime border dispute to provoke two deadly naval skirmishes — in 1999 and 2002.

North Korea now is believed to have enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen weapons, but experts say it still has not mastered the miniaturization technology required to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.

After firing a long-range missile on July 4, 2006, and carrying out its first nuclear test three months later, North Korea agreed in February 2007 to start disabling Yongbyon in exchange for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions. Disablement began in November 2007.

The process halted last summer in a dispute with Washington over verifying past atomic activities, and Pyongyang said last month it was quitting the talks altogether.

Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, and Foster Klug, Pamela Hess in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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