North Korea puts military on combat alert, warns of war

North Korea put its military on combat alert on Monday as United States and South Korean troops began a major joint exercise, and warned that any attempt to block its upcoming satellite launch would spark a war.

The communist state also severed its last communications channel with South Korea for the duration of the 12-day exercise by tens of thousands of troops, which Pyongyang has branded as a rehearsal for invasion.

The moves follow a threat last week against South Korean civilian airlines using the North’s airspace, forcing them to re-route flights.

The North Korean military described the exercises as “unprecedented in the number of the aggressor forces involved and in their duration”.

“The KPA Supreme Command issued an order to all service persons to be fully combat-ready,” it said in a statement on official media.

“A war will break out if the US imperialists and the warmongers of the South Korean puppet military hurl the huge troops and sophisticated strike means to mount an attack.”

The North, which tested an atomic weapon in 2006, said it was cutting off military phone and fax lines with South Korea during the drill as maintaining normal channels would be “nonsensical”.

This meant more than 700 people were unable to travel to a joint industrial complex at Kaesong just north of the border on Monday, as South Koreans can only cross over with approval from the North via the military lines.

General Walter Sharp, head of US forces in South Korea, reiterated Monday that the exercise—involving an aircraft carrier, 26 000 US troops and more than 30 000 South Koreans—is an annual defensive training drill.

However, this year’s exercise comes at a time of high cross-border tension and growing pressure on the North to drop plans to fire a rocket.

North Korea says it is preparing to launch a satellite, but both Seoul and Washington believe the underlying purpose is to test a long-range Taepodong-2 missile that could in theory reach Alaska.

The North’s military General Staff warned it would retaliate “with prompt counter-strikes by the most powerful military means” it has to any attempt to intercept it.

“Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war,” the military said.

Japan warned last week that it is prepared to shoot down any rocket headed toward its territory, and Admiral Timothy Keating, who commands the US Pacific Command, said interceptor ships were ready “on a moment’s notice”.

“Should it look like it’s something other than a satellite launch, we will be fully prepared to respond as the president directs,” he added.

Analysts suspect the North is taking a tougher stance as it competes for US President Barack Obama’s attention with other world hotspots.

It is also angry at South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-Bak, who has scrapped his predecessors’ policy of offering virtually unconditional aid to Pyongyang.

The new US envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said a launch would be “very ill-advised”.

He has been holding talks in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul on ways to persuade the North to push ahead with a landmark nuclear disarmament deal and hold back from firing a rocket.

“I have no illusions about what I’ve agreed to try to deal with,” Bosworth said here on Monday before talks with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan.

“It’s a very difficult mandate.”

In Seoul, the Unification Ministry regretted the communications cut-off. It urged Pyongyang to backtrack and stop raising tensions.

The ministry, amending its earlier figures, said about 80 South Koreans at Kaesong were scheduled to return across the border later on Monday and it was not known yet whether they would be allowed to do so.

Truck traffic has also been halted.

“If this situation continues for a prolonged period, businesses will be in serious trouble,” said Yoo Chang-Geun, the vice chairperson of a Kaesong factory owners’ group.—AFP

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