Seoul: Against the backdrop of North Korean threat of conducting third nuclear test, US and South Korea on Monday began naval drills off the Korean Peninsula's east coast.
In what seems to be a show of force aimed at North Korea, the three-day naval exercises would involve live-fire exercises, naval maneuvers and submarine detection drills.
According to South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Jung Seung-Jo, presence of nuclear-powered submarine USS San Francisco would serve as a message to "would itself serve as a message to North Korea", said a BBC report.
However, the officials assert that the naval drills were planned before the recent North Korean nuke tensions started.
The US and South Korea have also stepped up the diplomatic efforts aimed at North Korea, which declared last month that it would go ahead with a third nuke test in response to UN Security Council’s toughened sanctions.
The UN had imposed more sanctions on Pyongyang after a December satellite launch that is suspected to be a cover for banned missile test.
Pyongyang's two previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, both occurred after it was slapped with increased sanctions for similar rocket launches. As it issued its most recent punishment, the Security Council ordered North Korea to refrain from a nuclear test or face "significant action."
North Korea's state media said Sunday that at a high-level Workers' Party meeting, leader Kim Jong Un issued "important" guidelines meant to bolster the army and protect national sovereignty. North Korea didn't elaborate, but Kim's guidelines likely refer to a nuclear test and suggest that Pyongyang appears to have completed formal procedural steps and is preparing to conduct a nuclear test soon, according to South Korean analyst Hong Hyun-ik.
"We assess that North Korea has almost finished preparations for conducting a nuclear test anytime and all that's left is North Korea making a political decision" to do so, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters Monday.
The spokesman said he couldn't disclose further details because they would involve confidential intelligence affairs. Recent satellite photos showed North Korea may have been sealing the tunnel into a mountainside where a nuclear device could be exploded.
North Korean state media on Saturday described the drills as a joint exercise for a pre-emptive attack on the country. North Korea has said similar things when South Korea and the U.S. conducted other drills; the allies have repeatedly said they have no intention of attacking the North.
North Korea says U.S. hostility and the threat of American troops in South Korea are important reasons behind its nuclear drive. The U.S. stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
North Korea also has denounced sanctions over its rocket launches, saying it has the sovereign right to launch rockets to send satellites into orbit under a space development program.
With Agency Inputs
First Published: Monday, February 04, 2013, 14:47