Image: The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Sunda Strait, Indonesia on April 15, 2017. Sean M. Castellano/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
By Ben Blanchard and Ju-min Park
BEIJING/SEOUL – Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all sides to exercise restraint on Monday in a call about North Korea with U.S. President Donald Trump, as Japan conducted joint drills with a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group headed for Korean waters.
The carrier group was sent by Trump for exercises in waters off the Korean peninsula as a warning, amid growing fears North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon in defiance of United Nations sanctions.
Angered by the approach of the U.S. carrier group, a defiant North Korea said on Monday the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson was “an extremely dangerous act by those who plan a nuclear war to invade the North”.
“The United States should not run amok and should consider carefully any catastrophic consequence from its foolish military provocative act,” Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said in a commentary on Monday.
“What’s only laid for aggressors is dead bodies and deaths,” the newspaper said.
Two Japanese destroyers have already joined the carrier group for drills in the western Pacific, and South Korea said on Monday it was also in talks about holding joint naval exercises.
Washington and its allies fear Pyongyang could be preparing to conduct another nuclear missile test or launch more ballistic missiles.
China is increasingly worried the situation could spin out of control, leading to war and a chaotic collapse of its isolated and poverty-struck neighbour.
Xi told Trump that China resolutely opposes any actions that run counter to U.N. Security Council resolutions, a Chinese foreign ministry statement said.
China “hopes that all relevant sides exercise restraint, and avoid doing anything to worsen the tense situation on the peninsula”, the statement paraphrased Xi as saying.
The nuclear issue can only be resolved quickly with all relevant countries pulling in the same direction, and China is willing to work with all parties, including the United States, to ensure peace, Xi said.
The issue has gained added urgency as North Korea prepares to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday. It has marked similar events in the past with nuclear tests or missile launches.
Earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described his conversation with Trump as a “thorough exchange of views”.
“We agreed to strongly demand that North Korea, which is repeating its provocation, show restraint,” Abe told reporters.
“We will maintain close contact with the United States, keep a high level of vigilance and respond firmly,” he said.
Abe also said he and Trump agreed that China, North Korea’s sole major ally, should play a large role in dealing with Pyongyang.
A Japanese official said the phone call between Trump and Abe was not prompted by any specific change in the situation.
The U.S. government has not specified where the carrier strike group is, but U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Saturday it would arrive “within days”.
South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun gave no further details about the South’s plans, other than saying Seoul was holding discussions with the U.S. Navy.
“I can say the South Korean and U.S. militaries are fully ready for North Korea’s nuclear test,” Moon said.
South Korean and U.S. officials have feared for some time that North Korea could soon carry out its sixth nuclear test.
Satellite imagery analysed by 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, found some activity under way at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site last week.
However, the group said it was unclear whether the site was in a “tactical pause” before another test or was carrying out normal operations.
Adding to the heightened tensions, North Korea detained a U.S. citizen on Saturday as he attempted to leave the country.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Takashi Umekawa and Linda Sieg in TOKYO, James Pearson in SEOUL, Philip Wen in BEIJING, and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait)
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