North Korea appears to be gearing up for its sixth nuclear weapons test and a launch site is "primed and ready", it has been claimed.
A Washington-based think tank that monitors the country, 38 North, said satellite images taken on Wednesday showed continued activity around the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that suggested it was ready for a new test.
It said the site was "primed and ready" and that satellite pictures showed "continued activity" around the site's north portal, new goings-on in the main administrative area and personnel near its command centre. Trailers and netting were also visible, it said.
At the end of last month 38 North claimed satellite images showed the regime was in the "final stages" of preparation for a new nuclear test.
The state-funded US site Voice of America said US government sources told it the North had placed a device in a tunnel at Punggye-ri.
But on Thursday South Korean officials said there were no new signs to indicate a North Korean nuclear test was more likely, though they also said the North has maintained a state of readiness to conduct such a test at any time.
Some 200 foreign journalists in North Korea were roused early on Thursday and told to prepare for an "important" event as tensions in the region continue to run high.
The wake-up call came ahead of the Day of the Sun on Saturday, the birth anniversary of the country's founder Kim il-Sung, and amid fears the regime is planning another nuclear test.
In 2012, the regime tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date, and tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile last year.
But the "big and important event" turned out to be the opening of a new street in the capital, Pyongyang, attended by dictator Kim Jong-un.
Mr Kim had recently guided training of the army's special operation forces jumping from aircraft, the official KCNA news agency reported.
“Watching the brave combatants mercilessly blow up the enemy targets, he said with pleasure that the commanding officers made correct decisions, adding those combatants carrying out their duties independently and pro-actively were reminiscent of fierce tigers crossing the mountain ranges in the southern half,” KCNA said.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula grew this week with a US aircraft carrier strike group steaming toward the area. In an interview with Fox Business Network, President Donald Trump said: "We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you."
China, North Korea's sole major ally and benefactor, has called for a peaceful resolution after a sharp rise in rhetoric between the United States and Pyongyang.
On Thursday, an influential state-backed Chinese newspaper said the best option for the North was to give up its nuclear programme.
“As soon as North Korea complies with China's declared advice and suspends nuclear activities ... China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearised North Korean nation and regime,” said an editorial in the Global Times, which is published by the Communist party's People's Daily.
South Korea said it believed it would be consulted by the United States before any possible pre-emptive US strike against Pyongyang.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored fears about possible threats from North Korea, telling parliament in Tokyo that Pyongyang could have the capacity to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve gas.
While President Trump has put North Korea on notice that he will not tolerate provocative actions by the North, US officials have said his administration was focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions.
Mr Trump has diverted the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group towards the Korean peninsula, which could take more than a week to arrive, in a show of force aimed at deterring North Korea from conducting another nuclear test or launching more missiles to coincide with major commemorative events.
The possibility of US military action against North Korea in response to such tests gained traction after the US Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield last week in response to a deadly gas attack.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said he believed Washington would consult Seoul if it was considering a pre-emptive strike against the North.
“Under the South Korea-U.S. alliance, any important measure on the North is taken under consultation with the South Korea government and it will continue in the future,” Mr Yun told a parliamentary hearing.
A Washington-based think tank that monitors North Korea, 38 North, said satellite images taken on Wednesday showed continued activity around the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that showed it was ready for a new test.
South Korean officials said on Thursday there were no new signs to indicate a North Korean nuclear test was more likely, although they also said the North has maintained a state of readiness to conduct such a test at any time.
US officials said Mr Trump was considering tougher sanctions that could possibly include an oil embargo, banning North Korea's airline, intercepting cargo ships, and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang.
“There's a whole host of things that are possible, all the way up to what's essentially a trade quarantine on North Korea,” one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Washington on Wednesday.
Customs data in Beijing on Thursday showed that China's coal imports from North Korea plunged 51.6 percent in the first three months in 2017 from a year ago.
China suspended issuing permits for importing coal from North Korea on 18 February as part of its efforts to implement UN sanctions against Pyongyang.
Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on Wednesday, just days after they met in the United States for the first time, underscoring the sense of urgency about North Korea.
Mr Trump said on Twitter his call with Xi was a “very good” discussion of the “menace of North Korea”. He said later on Wednesday the United States was prepared to tackle the crisis without China if necessary.
Additional reporting by agencies
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