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February 4, 2013

South Korea, U.S. begin drills

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean and U.S. troops began naval drills today in a show of force partly directed at North Korea amid signs that Pyongyang will soon carry out a threat to conduct its third atomic test.

The region is also seeing a boost in diplomatic activity focused on North Korea’s announcement last month that it will conduct a nuclear test to protest international sanctions toughened over Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch in December.

Pyongyang’s two previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, both occurred after it was slapped with increased sanctions for similar rocket launches. The U.S., South Korea and other countries have urged North Korea to scrap its nuclear test plans or face grave consequences.

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.

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.

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