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Nuclear tests and preemptive strikes: fears grow over North Korea escalation

As concerns mount North Korea may be about to conduct a nuclear test, a senior Pyongyang official blamed US President Donald Trump for stirring up tensions. Reports suggest the US could launch a preemptive strike.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol on Friday blamed US President Donald Trump for building up tensions on the Korean Peninsula with his "aggressive" words and tweets. In an interview with the news agency AP, he warned the US against provoking the country militarily.

Read: North Korea could test nuclear weapon on day of celebration

"If the US comes with reckless military maneuvers then we will confront it with the DPRK's pre-emptive strike," Han said, calling North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "We will go to war if they choose."

An April 11 tweet from Trump, saying North Korea was looking for trouble and if China did not help the US would "solve the problem without them," was cited by Han who said it was the US that "makes trouble." 

Last weekend, a US aircraft carrier and its strike group were diverted to waters off the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration has warned its policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea is over.

"North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of," Trump told reporters. North Korea has continued to conduct missile and nuclear tests despite UN and other sanctions.

Watch video 00:37

US Navy carrier strike group moves to Korean Peninsula

China's role
However, Trump said he believed tensions over the North's nuclear program could be resolved with help from China, while Beijing itself said military force would not help the situation.

"After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," the president said in a "Wall Street Journal" interview after talks on the subject with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He said he hoped China's pressure could steer North Korea away from its nuclear program.

China said it was relying on negotiations to settle tensions. "Military force cannot resolve the issue," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing, adding is was necessary to stop the situation going down an "irreversible route."

Past failed tests

Speculation has arisen that the North might be planning a nuclear test to coincide with a national day of celebration. In Pyongyang, celebrations are already underway ahead of North Korea's biggest national day, the "Day of the Sun," on Saturday. It marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

In 2012, two days ahead of the centenary of Kim Il Sung's death, it tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite. Pyongyang tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile on the anniversary last year, although the launch also failed.

US Vice President Mike Pence is traveling to South Korea on Sunday, the first leg in a long-planned tour of Asia.

Last week Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian air base which the US believed was used to launch a chemical attack on a town in Idlib province. On Thursday Washington confirmed it had dropped its largest ever non-nuclear bomb in a combat situation in Afghanistan.

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