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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's National Security Council discussed how to evacuate its nearly 60,000 citizens from South Korea in the event of a crisis, a government official said on Friday, amid rising concern over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea denounced the United States on Friday for bringing "huge nuclear strategic assets" to the Korean peninsula as a U.S. aircraft carrier group headed for the region amid concerns the North may conduct a sixth nuclear test.
Besides commercial ships and planes, Japan would want to send military aircraft and ships to assist in the evacuation if the South Korean government agreed, the official, familiar with the discussion, said. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The NSC, in a meeting on Thursday, also discussed how to cope with a possible flood of North Korean refugees into Japan, among whom might be North Korean spies and agents, Japanese media reported.
Tension has risen since the U.S. Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield last week in response to a deadly gas attack, raising concerns about U.S. President Donald Trump's plans for North Korea, which has conducted missile and nuclear tests in defiance of UN and unilateral sanctions.
The United States has warned that its policy of "strategic patience" is over.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Friday that the government was always collecting and analysing information about North Korea's moves but refrained from commenting on details.
"At present, we are in close contact with the United States and South Korea and in addition to urging (the North) to refrain from provocative actions and observe relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, we will take all necessary steps to protect our people's lives and assets," Suga said.
Japan began working on plans to respond to a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula in February, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Trump at a summit in the United States, Kyodo news agency said.
Attendees at a Feb. 23 NSC meeting forecast a crisis on the Korean peninsula could prompt large numbers of refugees turning up in boats along the coast of the Sea of Japan, Kyodo said.
The attendees called for preparations for a humanitarian response along with tightened security given the possibility that North Korean soldiers could enter Japan pretending to be refugees, Kyodo said, quoting unidentified government sources.
A Japanese ruling party lawmaker and a government source told Reuters this week that coping with possible North Korean refugees would be among the matters for which Japan had to prepare.
But they said there was concern that any sign of actual preparations for a possible crisis would boost public anxiety.
Reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo, Kaori Kaneko, Linda Sieg, Ami Miyazaki and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Nick Macfie