North Korea threatens US with nuclear strike as American warships approach

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SEOUL, April 11 (Reuters) - North Korean state media on Tuesday warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of a U.S. pre-emptive strike as a U.S. Navy strike group led by a nuclear-powered aircraft steamed towards the western Pacific.

Tension has escalated sharply on the Korean peninsula with talk of military action by the United States gaining traction following its strikes last week against Syria and amid concerns the reclusive North may soon conduct a sixth nuclear test.

North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the country was prepared to respond to any aggression by the United States.

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A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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"Our revolutionary strong army is keenly watching every move by enemy elements with our nuclear sight focused on the U.S. invasionary bases not only in South Korea and the Pacific operation theater but also in the U.S. mainland," it said.

South Korean acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn warned of "greater provocations" by North Korea and ordered the military to intensify monitoring and to ensure close communication with the United States.

"It is possible the North may wage greater provocations such as a nuclear test timed with various anniversaries including the Supreme People's Assembly," said Hwang, acting leader since former president Park Geun-hye was removed amid a graft scandal.

The North convened a Supreme People's Assembly session on Tuesday, one of its twice-yearly sessions in which major appointments are announced and national policy goals are formally approved.

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But South Korean officials took pains to quell talk in social media of an impending security crisis or outbreak of war.

"We'd like to ask precaution so as not to get blinded by exaggerated assessment about the security situation on the Korean peninsula," Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun said.

Saturday is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country's founding father and grandfather of current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

A military parade is expected in the North's capital, Pyongyang, to mark the day. North Korea often also marks important anniversaries with tests of its nuclear or missile capabilities in breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message of congratulations to mark the event, lambasting "big powers" for their "expansionist" policy.

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"The friendly two countries are celebrating this anniversary and, at the same time, conducting a war against big powers' wild ambition to subject all countries to their expansionist and dominationist policy and deprive them of their rights to self-determination," Russian news agency Tass quote the message as saying.

The North's foreign ministry, in a statement carried by its KCNA news agency, said the U.S. navy strike group's approach showed America's "reckless moves for invading had reached a serious phase."

"We never beg for peace but we will take the toughest counteraction against the provocateurs in order to defend ourselves by powerful force of arms and keep to the road chosen by ourselves," an unidentified ministry spokesman said.

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North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.

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Delegates from around the North have been arriving in Pyongyang ahead of the assembly session. They visited statues of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, state media reported.

North Korea is emerging as one of the most pressing foreign policy problems facing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It has conducted five nuclear tests, two of them last year, and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

The Trump administration is reviewing its policy towards North Korea and has said all options are on the table, including military strikes, but U.S. officials said non-military action appears to be at the top of the list if any action were to be taken.

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An Air Force F-22 Raptor flies over the Arabian Sea to support Operation Inherent Resolve, January 27, 2016.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Marine Corps Sgt. Josh Greathouse scans the area during a perimeter patrol in Taqaddum, Iraq, March 21, 2016. Greathouse is a team leader assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response, for US Central Command.

(Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rick Hurtado)

Navy Seaman Fabian Soltero looks through shipboard binoculars aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, March 25, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Taylor L. Jackson)

USS Bulkeley receives fuel and cargo from dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Medgar Evers during a replenishment at sea in the Persian Gulf, February 25, 2016. The guided-missile destroyer was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations, and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Lieberknec)

Navy Seaman Brice Scraper, top, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Miller verify the serial number of a training missile on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea, October 5, 2016. The Reagan was supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke)

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Brianna Caballero maneuvers a harbor patrol boat to load it onto a trailer for maintenance on Naval Support Activity Bahrain, January 6, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Gary Granger Jr.)

Soldiers offload equipment and supplies from a CH-47F Chinook helicopter after landing on Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, April 24, 2016. At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker towers above.Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Army photo by John Pennell)

Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Soldiers offload equipment and supplies from a CH-47F Chinook helicopter after landing on Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, April 24, 2016. At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker towers above.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Pasquale Sena)

Sailors move a T-45C Goshawk aircraft on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, February 5, 2016. The Eisenhower was preparing for inspections and conducting carrier qualifications.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Anderson W. Branch)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Carney breaks away from the fleet-replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn after a replenishment at sea in the Mediterranean Sea, August 14, 2016. The Carney was patrolling in the US 6th Fleet area of responsibility to support US national-security interests in Europe.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Weston Jones)

A Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft prepares for takeoff from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Pacific Ocean, August 26, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael T. Eckelbecker)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristen Neufeld performs maintenance on a Mark 38-25 mm machine gun aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson at its home port in San Diego, August 18, 2016.

(Navy photo by Seaman Theo Shively)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Evans repairs an antenna system during a replenishment at sea involving the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey, and the Military Sealift Command combat support ship USNS Arctic in the Persian Gulf, September 2, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard)

Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Ross move ropes during a sea-and-anchor detail near Aksav, Turkey, January 7, 2016. The Ross was conducting a routine patrol in the US 6th Fleet area of operations to support US national-security interests in Europe.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Stumberg)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Trevor Ellam signals to the fleet-replenishment oiler USNS Laramie from aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Stout during a replenishment at sea in the Persian Gulf, October 14, 2016. Ellam is a boatswain’s mate. The Stout was supporting security efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge)

Marines depart a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter aboard the amphibious-assault ship USS Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean, October 22, 2016. The Makin Island was supporting the Navy’s maritime strategy in the US 3rd Fleet area of responsibility. The helicopter is assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163.

(Navy photo by Seaman Devin M. Langer)

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Fulks motions to crew members on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Philippine Sea, February 24, 2016. The Stennis provides a ready force to support security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

(Navy photo by Seaman Cole C. Pielop)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen patrols the eastern Pacific Ocean, March 10, 2016. The Lassen was supporting Operation Martillo with the US Coast Guard and partner nations within the US 4th Fleet area of responsibility.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Huey D. Younger Jr.)

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Russia's foreign ministry, in a statement ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said it was concerned about many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and particularly concerned about North Korea.

"We are really worried about what Washington has in mind for North Korea after it hinted at the possibility of a unilateral military scenario," a statement said.

"It's important to understand how that would tally with collective obligations on de-nuclearising the Korean peninsula, something that is underpinned in U.N. Security Council resolutions."

Russia slammed U.S. cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base on Friday, calling them an illegal attack on a sovereign state.

The U.S. Navy strike group Carl Vinson was diverted from planned port calls to Australia and would move towards the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula as a show of force, a U.S. official told Reuters over the weekend.

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U.S. officials said it would still take the strike group more than a week to arrive near the Korean peninsula.

Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met in Florida last week and Trump pressed Xi to do more to curb North Korea's nuclear program.

China and South Korea agreed on Monday to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea if it carried out nuclear or long-range missile tests, a senior official in Seoul said.

SEE ALSO: US missile strike against Syria being questioned by some Iraq war veterans

On Tuesday, a fleet of North Korean cargo ships was heading home to the port of Nampo, the majority of it fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return coal from the isolated state to curb coal traffic, sources with direct knowledge of the trade said.

The order was given on April 7, just as Trump and Xi were set for the summit where the two agreed the North Korean nuclear advances had reached a "very serious stage," Tillerson said.

Following repeated missile tests that drew international criticism, China banned all imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off the country's most important export product.

As well as the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth, there are several other North Korean anniversaries in April that could be opportunities for weapon tests, South Korean officials have said.

The North is seen ready to conduct its sixth nuclear test at any time, with movements detected by satellite at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. (Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

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