China warns against force as North Korea prepares ominous celebration

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BEIJING/PYONGYANG, April 13 (Reuters) - Military force cannot resolve tension over North Korea, China said on Thursday, while an influential Chinese newspaper urged the North to halt its nuclear program in exchange for Chinese protection.

With a U.S. aircraft carrier group steaming to the area and tension rising, South Korea said it believed the United States would consult it before any pre-emptive strike against the North.

Fears have been growing that the reclusive North could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test or more missile launches in defiance of U.N. sanctions and stark warnings from the United States that a policy of patience was over.

China, North Korea's sole major ally and benefactor, which nevertheless opposes its weapons program, has called for talks leading to a peaceful resolution and the denuclearistaion of the peninsula.

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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
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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"Military force cannot resolve the issue," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing.

"Amid challenge there is opportunity. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks."

While U.S. President Donald Trump has put North Korea on notice that he would not tolerate any provocation, U.S. officials have said his administration was focusing its strategy on tougher economic sanctions.

Trump has diverted the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group towards the Korean peninsula, which could take more than a week to arrive, in a show of force aimed at deterring North Korea from conducting another nuclear test or launching more missiles to coincide with important events and anniversaries.

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The possibility of U.S. military action gained traction after the U.S. Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield last week in response to a deadly gas attack.

Wang warned that history would hold any instigator to account.

"Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility," Wang said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told parliament in Seoul he believed Washington would consult Seoul if it was considering a pre-emptive strike. The United States has about 28,500 troops in South Korea.

A Washington-based think-tank that monitors North Korea, 38 North, said satellite images on Wednesday showed activity around the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that indicated it was ready for a new test.

South Korean officials said there were no new signs to indicate a test was more likely, although they also said the North appeared ready to conduct a test at any time.

An influential state-backed Chinese newspaper said the best option for North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, was to give up its nuclear program, and China would protect it if it did.

"As soon as North Korea complies with China's declared advice and suspends nuclear activities ... China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearised North Korean nation and regime," said an editorial in the Global Times, which is published by the Communist party's People's Daily.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored fears about threats from North Korea, telling parliament in Tokyo that Pyongyang could have the capacity to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve gas.

A senior Japanese diplomat said the United States was putting "maximum pressure" on North Korea to resolve issues peacefully while putting responsibility on China to sway its old ally.

"We will watch what action China takes," the diplomat said.

While Japan did not see a high risk of military action, it expected to be consulted by the United States if it decided to attack. North Korea has about 350 missiles that can hit Japan.

"DAY OF THE SUN"

About 200 foreign journalists gathered in Pyongyang for North Korea's biggest national day, the "Day of the Sun," were taken to what officials billed as a "big and important event" early on Thursday.

It turned out to be the opening of a new street in the center of the capital, attended by leader Kim.

North Korea marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on Saturday. In 2012, it tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date and tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile last year.

North Korea's official KCNA news agency said early on Thursday that Kim Jong Un had guided training of the army's special operation forces jumping from aircraft.

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On Tuesday, North Korea warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression. The North is technically at war with the United States and South Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.

The North regularly threatens to destroy both countries.

U.S. officials said Trump was considering sanctions that could include an oil embargo, banning North Korea's airline, intercepting cargo ships, and punishing Chinese banks doing business with it.

"There's a whole host of things that are possible, all the way up to what's essentially a trade quarantine on North Korea," one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Washington.

Customs data in Beijing on Thursday showed that China's coal imports from North Korea had plunged 51.6 percent in the first three months in 2017 from a year ago.

China suspended issue of permits for coal imports from North Korea on Feb. 18 as part of its effort to implement U.N. sanctions.

SEE ALSO: Russia vetoes UN resolution on Syria attack, China abstains

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on Wednesday, just days after they met in the United States for the first time, underscoring the sense of urgency about North Korea.

Trump said on Twitter his call with Xi was a "very good" discussion of the "menace of North Korea." He said later on Wednesday the United States was prepared to tackle the crisis without China, if necessary.

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