ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE: Pope Francis on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) called for negotiations to resolve tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Speaking on board the papal plane on his way back from a two-day visit to Egypt, the pontiff said there was a need for “negotiations with a view to a diplomatic solution.”
“There are plenty of mediators in the world who are putting themselves forward. Norway, for example which is ready to help,” he said.
Reprising his theme of “world war in parts,” Pope Francis said that these were “concentrated at points that were already hot. In Korea, today, it seems that things are becoming too heated.”
South Korea and the United States wrapped up their annual large-scale military drills on Sunday, but continued a separate joint naval exercise that has triggered dire threats from North Korea.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been running sky-high for weeks, with signs that the North might be preparing a long-range missile launch or a sixth nuclear test — and with Washington refusing to rule out a military strike in response.
The massive “Foal Eagle” drill, which the defense ministry in Seoul said was ending as scheduled on Sunday, involved around 20,000 South Korean and 10,000 US troops.
Another annual joint exercise known as “Key Resolve” ended last month.
Both play out scenarios for a conflict with North Korea, but Seoul and Washington insist they are purely defensive in nature, despite Pyongyang’s claims that they are provocative rehearsals for invasion.
Their conclusion normally signals a period of relative calm in North-South tensions, but this year the situation looks set to remain highly volatile.
US President Donald Trump has warned of a possible “major conflict” while Pyongyang has carried out a series of failed missile tests, including one on Saturday, and a massive live-fire military exercise.
The South Korean defense ministry confirmed Sunday that a joint naval drill with a US strike group, led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, was still ongoing in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
The exercise, aimed at verifying the allies’ capability to track and intercept enemy ballistic missiles, is expected to continue until sometime next week.
Through state media, North Korea has threatened to attack the Carl Vinson, and a state-sponsored website on Sunday also warned of a possible strike against a US nuclear-powered submarine dispatched to the area.
China is “putting pressure” on its ally North Korea to curb its weapons programs, Trump told the CBS television network’s “Face the Nation” program.
If North Korea carries out another nuclear test “I would not be happy,” he said.
“And I can tell you also, I don’t believe that the president of China, who is a very respected man, will be happy either,” Trump said in excerpts of the interview released Saturday.
Asked if “not happy” signified “military action,” Trump answered: “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see.”
Pyongyang’s show of defiance included a failed missile test on Saturday that came just hours after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the UN Security Council of “catastrophic consequences” if the international community — most notably China — failed to pressure the North into abandoning its weapons program.
Military options for dealing with the North were still “on the table,” Tillerson said.
China has repeatedly pushed back at the idea that it alone holds the solution to curbing the North’s nuclear ambitions, and warned that any use of US force would only lead to “bigger disasters.”
Also on Sunday, reports said Japan will dispatch its biggest warship since World War II to protect a US supply ship, as tensions mount in the region over North Korea.
The helicopter carrier Izumo will leave the mother port of Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, on Monday and join the US supply ship to escort it further into the western Pacific, the leading Asahi Shimbun daily and Jiji Press reported citing unnamed government sources.
It will be the first deployment — outside of troop exercises –to protect the US fleet after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded the country’s military capabilities in 2015, though they remain restricted under Japan’s pacifist constitution.
The US supply ship is expected to support America’s naval fleet in the Pacific, possibly including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which remains on high alert over North Korea’s ballistic missile firings, the reports said.
Japanese naval officials declined to comment on the reports.