North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

North Korea said it delayed a decision on firing missiles into the ocean near the US territory of Guam as Washington warned it would destroy any missiles heading for the Pacific island.

Pyongyang’s plan announced last week to land four missiles near Guam prompted a war of words with the US as President Donald Trump said he would unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it threatened the United States.

In his first public appearance in about two weeks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspected the North’s army on Monday and discussed the Guam missile plan with army officers, the state-run KCNA media said.

“The United States, which was the first to bring numerous strategic nuclear equipment near us, should first make the right decision and show through actions if they wish to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and prevent a dangerous military clash,” Kim was cited as saying in a report by KCNA.

US officials and South Korea’s president in recent days have played down the risk of an imminent conflict while stressing readiness to respond militarily to any attack from North Korea.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that the US military would know the trajectory of a missile fired from North Korea within moments and would “take it out” if it looked like it would hit Guam.

Defense Secretary James Mattis. Photo: Reuters

Mattis said that if a North Korean missile were headed toward the waters near Guam, instead of aimed directly at the island, then the president would decide what action to take.

“The bottom line is, we will defend the country from an attack; for us (U.S. military) that is war,” Mattis said.

No second Korean war

Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has ratcheted up global concerns in recent months.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said the EU would intensify its diplomatic efforts with North Korea, the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

Mogherini called on North Korea “to refrain from any further provocative action that can only increase regional and global tensions.”

Mattis and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday sent a conciliatory message to North Korea in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, which also appeared aimed at easing Beijing’s concerns about US intentions. China shares a border with North Korea.

“The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea. We do not seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone,” the officials said, addressing some of Pyongyang’s fears that Washington ultimately intends to replace the reclusive country’s leadership.

“While diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action, it is backed by military options,” the two officials said.

Tension on the Korean peninsula had eased slightly on Monday as South Korea’s president said resolving North Korea’s nuclear ambitions must be done peacefully.

“There must be no more war on the Korean peninsula. Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully,” President Moon Jae-in told a meeting with senior aides and advisers.

South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-In speaks during a press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

“I am certain the United States will respond to the current situation calmly and responsibly in a stance that is equal to ours,” he said.

Financial markets reflected the cooling of tensions as world stock markets rose on Monday along with US Treasury yields and the U.S. dollar.

August 15 marks the surrender of Japan in World War II that brought with it the liberation of the Korean peninsular from Japanese rule, a rare holiday celebrated by both the North and the South.

Moon and Kim are both expected to make addresses on their respective sides of the heavily militarised border that splits the country.

The United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

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