(An Jung-won ~ Yonhap)
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the situation is worrisome but has not reached a crisis level that would warrant additional U.S. troops in the region. Any military actions would need to be decided upon by broad international agreement, he said.
"I don't think that anybody in the [Obama] administration thinks there is a crisis," Gates told reporters aboard his military jet early this morning, still Thursday night in Washington.
The Army's top officer, Gen. George Casey, expressed confidence that the U.S. could fight a conventional war against North Korea if necessary, despite continuing conflicts elsewhere.
North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion and a series of short-range missile test launches this week, drawing strong international condemnation. The U.N. Security Council has been discussing how to punish the regime for Monday's blast that President Obama called a "blatant violation" of international law.
Russia's U.N. ambassador said Thursday there is wide agreement among key world powers on what a new U.N. resolution should include to respond to North Korea's second nuclear test which violated a Security Council ban.
But Vitaly Churkin cautioned that putting the elements together and getting agreement will take time because the issues are "complicated" and there are many suggestions.
A list of proposals was compiled and sent to the seven governments Wednesday -- the five permanent veto-wielding council members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and the two countries most closely affected by the nuclear test, Japan and South Korea.
The ambassadors were to meet Thursday afternoon to hear the initial reactions. But diplomats said a draft of the proposed resolution is not expected to be circulated until next week.
In response to the nuclear test, South Korea said it would join more than 90 nations that have agreed to stop and inspect vessels suspected of transporting weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea called South Korea's participation in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative a prelude to a naval blockade and a violation of the truce signed to end the three-year war that broke out in Korea in 1950. It also renounced the 1953 armistice and threatened to strike any ships trying to intercept its vessels.
"The northward invasion scheme by the U.S. and the South Korean puppet regime has exceeded the alarming level," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "A minor accidental skirmish can lead to a nuclear war."
On Thursday, South Korean and U.S. troops raised their alert to the highest level since 2006 when North Korea carried out its first nuclear test. About 28,000 American troops are stationed across the South.
The two Koreas technically remain at war because they signed a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. However, North disputes the U.N.-drawn maritime border off their west coast, and used that dispute to provoke deadly naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.
The South has said its military would "respond sternly" to any North Korean provocation, and that it would be able to contain the North with the help of U.S. troops. It moved a 3,500-ton destroyer into waters near the western maritime border while smaller, high-speed vessels were keeping guard at the front line, the Yonhap news agency said.
Seoul's mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said more anti-air missiles and artillery were dispatched to military bases on islands near the disputed western sea border with North Korea.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, positioned artillery guns along the west coast on its side of the border, the Yonhap news agency said. The Joint Chiefs of Staffs in Seoul refused to confirm the reports. North Korea's West Sea fleet has 13 submarines and more than 360 vessels, Yonhap said.
The recent flurry of belligerence could reflect an effort by 67-year-old leader Kim Jong Il to boost his standing among his impoverished people.
It was also seen as a test of Obama's new administration, and came as two Americans, journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, remained in custody in Pyongyang accused of illegal entry and "hostile acts." They face trial in Pyongyang next week.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Eric Talmadge in Seoul, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Anne Gearan in Washington, Lara Jakes aboard a U.S. military jet and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.