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Korea tensions ease slightly as US officials play down war risks

  • Pyongyang 1-2 yrs from mastering missile re-entry tech, says South Korea.

  • Ability to miniaturize nuclear warhead advancing, says vice defense minister.

  • Don't link trade with North Korea, China tells U.S.

  • Chinese media says U.S. probe on trade will poison relationship.

A ballistic rocket is test-fired through a precision control guidance system in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 30, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters
A ballistic rocket is test-fired through a precision control guidance system in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 30, 2017.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula eased slightly on Monday as South Korea's president said resolving Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions must be done peacefully and key U.S. officials played down the risk of an imminent war with North Korea.

Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has underpinned a spike in tensions in recent months.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned at the weekend that the U.S. military was " locked and loaded " if North Korea acted unwisely after threatening last week to land missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

"There must be no more war on the Korean peninsula. Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully," South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a regular meeting with senior aides and advisers.

"I am certain the United States will respond to the current situation calmly and responsibly in a stance that is equal to ours," he said.

While backing Trump's tough talk, U.S. officials including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster played down the risk on Sunday of the rhetoric escalating into conflict.

"I think we're not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago," McMaster told ABC News' "This Week".

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might well conduct another missile test but talk of being on the cusp of a nuclear war was overstating the risk.

"I've seen no intelligence that would indicate that we're in that place today," Pompeo told "Fox News Sunday".

World stocks rallied on Monday as investors took heart from the less bellicose rhetoric.

However, North Korea reiterated its threats, with its official KCNA news agency saying "war cannot be blocked by any power if sparks fly due to a small, random incident that was unintentional".

"Any second Korean War would have no choice but to spread into a nuclear war," it said in a commentary on Monday.

Missile doubts

South Korean Vice Defence Minister Suh Choo-suk agreed North Korea was likely to continue provocations, including nuclear tests, but did not see a big risk of the North engaging in actual military conflict.

Suh again highlighted doubts about North Korea's claims about its military capability.

"Both the United States and South Korea do not believe North Korea has yet completely gained re-entry technology in material engineering terms," Suh said in remarks televised on Sunday for a Korea Broadcasting System show.

The United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

Tension in the region has risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, tests that the North often conducts to coincide with important national dates.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the plenary session at the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the plenary session at the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of Japan's expulsion from the Korean peninsula, a rare holiday celebrated by both the North and the South. Moon and Kim, who has not been seen publicly for several days, are both expected to make addresses on their respective sides of the heavily militarised border.

Trump has urged China, the North's main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbour, often linking Beijing's efforts to comments around U.S.-China trade. China strenuously rejects linking the two issues.

Trump will issue an order later on Monday to determine whether to investigate Chinese trade practices that force U.S. firms operating in China to turn over intellectual property, senior administration officials said on Saturday.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Beijing has said many times the essence of China-U.S. trade and business ties is mutual benefit and that there is no future in any trade war between China and the United States.

"The (Korean) peninsula issue and trade and business issues are in a different category from each other," Hua added. "On these two issues, China and the United States should respect each other and increase cooperation. Using one issue as a tool for exerting pressure on another is clearly inappropriate."

China's Commerce Ministry issued an order on Monday banning imports of coal, iron ore, lead concentrates and ore, lead and sea food from North Korea, effective from Tuesday.

The move followed the announcement of United Nations sanctions against North Korea earlier this month which have to be enforced within 30 days by member-states.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford told South Korea's Moon in a meeting on Monday that U.S. military options being prepared against North Korea would be for when diplomatic and economic sanctions failed, according to Moon's office.