China appealed for “joint efforts” to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula on Friday, after Pyongyang ordered missile units to prepare to strike the US mainland and US stealth bombers flew over South Korea.
“We call on all relevant parties to make joint efforts to turn around the tense situation,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular press briefing in Beijing.
“Peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as well as Northeast Asia serves the common interest,” he added.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and biggest trading partner, providing key energy supplies to the poverty-stricken nation.
Beijing has repeatedly voiced similar appeals since North Korea carried out a nuclear test in February, its third in seven years, which prompted the UN Security Council to endorse tighter economic sanctions on the country.
Russia warned on Friday that a flare-up in tensions between North Korea and the United States could spin out of control, urging all sides involved in the stand-off to refrain from muscle-flexing.
“Unilateral actions are being taken around North Korea which manifest themselves in an escalation of military activity,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“We can simply see the situation getting out of control, it would spiral down into a vicious circle,” he told reporters at a news conference alongside his Ukrainian counterpart.
“We believe it is necessary for all not to build up military muscle and not to use the current situation as an excuse to solve certain geopolitical tasks in the region through military means,” he said, calling on all sides to create conditions for the resumption of talks.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un earlier on Friday ordered missile units to prepare to strike the US mainland and military bases in the Pacific after US stealth bombers flew over South Korea.
The flights were part of annual drills between the United States and South Korea, which North Korea each year denounces as rehearsals for war.
Pyongyang has been particularly irate this time, angered by UN sanctions imposed after its long-range rocket launch in December and the third nuclear test last month.
But a Russian military source, speaking to the Interfax news agency, dismissed North Korea’s promise to strike as an empty threat.
“So far North Korea does not have a delivery vehicle which could reach the United States or its bases in the Pacific Ocean,” said the source, who was not named.
“North Koreans are also far from creating a nuclear warhead which could be put on an intercontinental ballistic missile,” the source told the news agency.
North Korean state media issued two photos on Friday that appeared to show plans for striking the United States.
One picture showed Kim sitting at a desk in what looked like a military operations room. A map is shown in the picture with the unambiguous title: “Strategic Forces’ US Mainland Striking Plan.”
The Russian source dismissed the pictures as “bogeyman stories”.
“I do not believe in the possibility of such strikes,” he said, noting that North Korea’s threats gave Washington an excuse to increase its military presence in the Pacific.
“Thanks to their rhetoric, the North Koreans in fact play into the hands of Americans, giving them a great excuse to ramp up missile defence capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region,” the military source said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed off on the order at a midnight meeting of top generals and “judged the time has come to settle accounts with the US imperialists in view of the prevailing situation”, the official KCNA news agency said.
The North has an arsenal of Soviet-era short-range Scud missiles that can hit South Korea and have been proven, but its longer-range Nodong and Musudan missiles that could in theory hit US Pacific bases are untested.
On Thursday, the United States flew two radar-evading B-2 Spirit bombers on practice runs over South Korea, responding to a series of North Korean threats. They flew from the United States and back in what appeared to be the first exercise of its kind, designed to show America’s ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes “quickly and at will”, the US military said.
The news of Kim’s response was unusually swift.
“He finally signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic rockets of the KPA [Korean People’s Army], ordering them to be on standby for fire so that they may strike any time the US mainland, its military bases in the operational theatres in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea,” KCNA said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported there had been additional troop and vehicle movements at the North’s mid- and long-range missile sites, indicating they may be ready to fire.
“Sharply increased movements of vehicles and soldiers have been detected recently at North Korea’s mid and long-range missile sites,” Yonhap quoted a South Korean military source as saying.
It was impossible to verify the report which did not specify a time frame, although South Korea’s Defence Ministry said on Friday that it was watching shorter-range Scud missile sites closes as well as Nodong and Musudan missile batteries.
The North has launched a daily barrage of threats since early this month when the United States and the South, allies in the 1950-53 Korean war, began routine military drills.
The South and the United States have said the drills are purely defensive in nature and that no incident has taken place in the decades they have been conducted in various forms.
The United States also flew B-52 bombers over South Korea earlier this week.
The North has put its military on highest readiness to fight what it says are hostile forces conducting war drills. Its young leader has previously given “final orders” for its military to wage revolutionary war with the South.
Despite the tide of hostile rhetoric from Pyongyang, it has kept open a joint economic zone with the South which generates US$2 billion a year in trade, money the impoverished state can ill-afford to lose.
Pyongyang has also cancelled an armistice agreement with the United States that ended the Korean War and cut all communications hotlines with US forces, the United Nations and South Korea.
“The North Koreans have to understand that what they’re doing is very dangerous,” US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
“We must make clear that these provocations by the North are taken by us very seriously and we’ll respond to that.”
The US military said that its B-2 bombers had flown more than 10,461 kilometres to stage a trial bombing raid from their bases in Missouri as part of the Foal Eagle war drills being held with South Korea.
The bombers dropped inert munitions on the Jik Do Range, in South Korea, and then returned to the continental United States in a single, continuous mission, the military said.
Thursday’s drill was the first time B-2s flew round-trip from the mainland United States over South Korea and dropped inert munitions, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the drill fitted within the context of ramped-up efforts by the Pentagon to deter the North from acting upon any of its threats.
Asked whether he thought the latest moves could further aggravate tensions on the peninsula, Cha, a former White House official, said: “I don’t think the situation can get any more aggravated than it already is.”
South Korea denied suggestions on Friday that the bomber drills contained an implicit threat of attack on the North.
“There is no entity on the earth who will strike an attack on North Korea or expressed their wishes to do so,” a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry said.
Despite the shrill rhetoric from Pyongyang, few believe North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, will risk starting a full-out war.
Still, Hagel, who on March 15 announced he was bolstering missile defences over the growing North Korea threat, said all of the provocations by the North had to be taken seriously.
“Their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted up the danger and we have to understand that reality,” Hagel said, renewing a warning that the US military was ready for “any eventuality” on the peninsula.
North Korea conducted a third nuclear weapons test in February in breach of UN sanctions and despite warnings from China, its one major diplomatic ally.