SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean and U.S. forces have downgraded their defensive alert against the North based on intelligence that Pyongyang has relaxed the standby status of military units on the west coast, a news report said on Friday.
The North Korean units, including artillery bases likely to have been involved in the shelling of a South Korean island on November 23, had been on special standby but now appear to be on routine operations, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
“We’re looking at whether these steps are linked to the conciliatory gestures coming from the North with its offer for talks,” Yonhap quoted the government source as saying.
South Korea’s defence ministry and an official at the Combined Forces Command declined to confirm the report. “We do not discuss intelligence matters,” the official said.
Last year, tension reached some of its highest levels since the 1950-53 Korean War when a South Korean navy ship was sunk by a torpedo attack which Seoul blamed on the North, and the North bombed Yeonpyeong island in November.
The incidents, and threats of retaliation from both sides of the border, briefly rattled financial markets. Some analysts said the risk of a broader conflict intensified, though full-scale war remains unlikely.
South Korea’s Chief of Naval Operation Kim Sung-chan told local reporters on Friday it and the U.S. military will double the scale of combined anti-submarine drills this year, including those in waters near the disputed sea border with the North, Yonhap reported.
North Korea on Wednesday called for unconditional talks with the South to ease tensions, which Seoul rejected as “propaganda” it did not take seriously.
The heightened tension has increased the pressure to resume dialogue with the North, but Seoul and Washington have rejected Pyongyang’s overtures and China’s calls for discussions. The North walked out of aid-for-disarmament talks with the South, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. in 2008.
U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth is concluding a regional visit aimed at coordinating the next steps towards ending the North’s nuclear ambitions.
His trip appeared to have yielded no breakthrough on a proposal to bind Pyongyang to serious negotiations while ensuring regional powers do not get sucked into offering a compromise. Bosworth was due to leave Japan for the U.S. on Friday.
“In last few weeks the North Koreans decided to check whether their adversaries (and) donors have been made tense enough by the recent crisis ... to talk and give concessions,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “It seems that they are going to be bitterly disappointed: neither South Korea not Washington are likely to give in.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara repeated that North Korea must cease its provocative behaviour for progress to be made in calming tensions.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, speaking in New York on Thursday, renewed China’s appeal for emergency talks between the heads of delegation of the six-party talks.
In a show of force, U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson will lead a strike group that includes a destroyer and a cruiser as well as fighter jet and anti-submarine helicopter squadrons, on
port calls at South Korea’s southern harbour cities on Tuesday.
The strike group is on a regularly scheduled deployment to the Western Pacific and has no plans to engage in military drills while in South Korean waters, the Combined Forces Command said.
The carrier will conduct exercises in the East China Sea with the Japanese navy, involving landing helicopters on each others’ vessels, NHK said on Friday.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Seoul, Yoko Kubota in Tokyo and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Daniel Magnowski