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September 26, 2017

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South Korea's Lee departs for U.S. for summit with Obama

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's president said Monday that the country's alliance with the United States is key to resolving North Korea's nuclear and missile threats as he flew to Washington for a summit with President Barack Obama.

The summit scheduled for Tuesday comes in the wake of North Korea's weekend declaration that it would step up its nuclear bomb-making program. It also threatened war with any country that tries to stop its ships on the high seas as part of new U.N. Security Council sanctions passed in response to Pyongyang's May 25 nuclear test.

North Korea is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen atomic bombs, and a U.S. government official said last week Pyongyang may be preparing for another nuclear test, its third. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the unreleased information and provided no details.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence were keeping a close eye on signs of an impending test.

"We cannot stress enough the importance of diplomacy at a time when a security crisis is intensifying due to North Korea's nuclear and missile threats," President Lee Myung-bak said in a radio speech before his departure Monday.

"In particular, the South Korea-U.S. diplomacy is key to that diplomacy," he said. "I will use this summit to reconfirm the strong Korea-U.S. alliance."

The strong ties between South Korea and the United States are a thorn in the side of wartime foe North Korea, which accuses the two countries of plotting an attack and a desire to topple the communist regime.

The two Koreas technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953, and they remain divided by a heavily fortified border.

The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea but denies any plan to attack North Korea.

However, Washington fears that North Korea, one of the poorest nations in the world, will sell its nuclear technology to rogue nations, spreading the atomic threat.

Pyongyang affirmed its commitment to building atomic bombs over the weekend, and has been developing missiles capable of striking Japan and the United States. It says the two programs are a deterrent against the United States.

Last weekend, North Korea also said it would "weaponize" all its plutonium and acknowledged the existence of a long-suspected uranium enrichment program for the first time. Both plutonium and uranium are key ingredients for making atomic bombs.

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported Monday that South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies pinpointed 11 underground facilities in North Korea where a third atomic test could take place. The report said they have mobilized spy satellites and human intelligence networks to monitor the 11 sites to check for vehicle movements and other unusual activities.

South Korea's Defense Ministry and National Intelligence Service said they could not confirm the report.

The new U.N. sanctions are aimed at depriving the North of the financing used to build its nuclear program. They also authorize searches of North Korean ships suspected of transporting illicit ballistic missile and nuclear materials.

In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden expressed the U.S. commitment to enforcing the sanctions while acknowledging that "God only knows" what ruler Kim Jong Il wants from the latest showdown.

Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that it's crucial for the U.S. and other nations to "make sure those sanctions stick."

Kim reportedly had a stroke 10 months ago, and analysts say the recent provocations may part of a plan to name his 26-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, as the future leader.

"There's all kinds of discussions," said Biden. "Whether this is about succession, wanting his son to succeed him. Whether or not he's looking for respect. Whether or not he really wants a nuclear capability to threaten the region. ... We can't guess his motives.

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