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South Korean defence chief raises possibility of North Korean provocations

A North Korean soldier keeps a watchful eye on his South Korean counterpart at the Joint Security Area, DMZ, Aug. 1, 2012.

Seoul - South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin on Tuesday raised the possibility of North Korean provocations between late January and early March, calling for full preparedness and tighter troop discipline.

The period is when the militaries of the two Koreas conduct a set of regular troop drills, including an annual South Korea-U.S. exercise, which Pyongyang has routinely condemned as a "rehearsal for a war of invasion."

Rep. Cho Won-jin of the ruling Saenuri Party, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, also said there were signs of Pyongyang preparing for additional nuclear and missile tests, a claim the Defence Minister denied.

During a video teleconference with top commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force, Kim ordered all troops to remain ready to take an "unsparing" retaliatory action if ever provoked.

"While preparing ourselves to handle the threats of both low-intensity provocations and an all-out war, we should make sure that we devastate their will to fight by destroying the leadership and those supporting it, should the enemy set off provocations," Kim was quoted as saying by his spokesperson Kim Min-seok.

Calling the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, a "major turning point" in the reclusive regime's political governance, the minister forecast that internal instability in the North would increase in the long run.

"The execution could further strengthen internal unity temporarily. But as time goes on, the regime would lose public support, and distrust toward the regime would grow, which could make the leadership increasingly unstable," he said.

"Sources of instability in the North coupled with inordinate competition among military elites to show loyalty (to the dynastic ruler) could lead to miscalculations, and there could be various forms of provocations."

Kim's remarks came a day after President Park Geun-hye ordered the establishment of a standing secretariat of the National Security Council to better cope with North Korean situations and the changing regional security landscape.

During a meeting of her senior secretaries, Park said that "reckless provocations" by the North could not be ruled out, calling for a robust military readiness, beefed-up border patrol and tighter discipline in officialdom.

Saenuri Rep. Cho claimed that Pyongyang would likely use an additional nuclear test as a way to push China to do more to shore up bilateral ties and help address the North's diplomatic isolation. He refused to confirm sources of his intelligence.

The Defence Ministry denied Cho's claim, saying that there were no signs of an imminent nuclear test, and that there is no missile launcher erected in the North.

"For now, there are just few options, which North Korea can use to break its diplomatic impasse, due to strained ties with China. A fourth nuclear test could be a viable card for Pyongyang to play," Cho told The Korea Herald.

"It would not be long before the North presents its nuclear test card again to bring China to the negotiating table and push it to do what the North wants such as arranging the North Korea-China summit."

The Pyongyang-Beijing relations have recently deteriorated as China has shown strong opposition to the North's nuclear armament and vowed to actively comply with the international sanctions against the North.

Analysts said the recent execution of Jang might have unnerved Beijing as Jang was seen as having close ties to Beijing officials, given that he has spearheaded major economic cooperation projects with China.

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