US Marine helicopter with 21 on board crashes on North Korean border as rogue state vows to destroy South with ‘sledgehammer blows’
A US Marine transport helicopter crashed near the North Korean border during exercises with South Korean forces as Pyongyang threatened to launch ‘powerful sledge-hammer blows’ against Seoul.
The H-53 US Marine Sea Stallion, which was carrying 21 US soldiers, came down in flames on a military shooting range 55 miles northeast of the South Korean capital, though the US military attempted to play down the crash, describing it as a ‘hard landing’.
It said all its occupants survived, six of whom were taken to hospital where they remained in a ‘stable condition’.
Down in flames: The H-53 US Marine chopper, which was carrying 21 US soldiers, came down in flames in what US military described as a ‘hard landing’
It came as North Korea issued new threats against South Korea on Tuesday, vowing ‘sledge-hammer blows’ of retaliation if South Korea did not apologise for anti-North Korean protests the previous day when the North was celebrating the birth of its founding leader.
But despite the new ultimatum, the North Korean leadership was looking for a way to cool down its rhetoric after weeks of warnings of war, a senior U.S. military official in South Korea said.
On Monday, the North dropped its shrill threats against the United States and South Korea as it celebrated the 101st anniversary of the birth of its first leader, Kim Il-Sung, raising hopes for an easing of tension in a region that has for weeks seemed on the verge of conflict.
The hint of a scaling back of the confrontation followed offers of talks with the isolated North from both the United States and the South.
But the North’s KCNA news agency said on Tuesday the North Korean army had issued an ultimatum to the South after rallies in the South on Monday at which portraits of North Korea’s leaders were burned.
‘Our retaliatory action will start without any notice from now,’ KCNA reported, citing military leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially known.
South Korean media reported several small demonstrations in the capital, Seoul, on Monday. One television station showed pictures of a handful of protesters burning a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Small counter-protests, by South Koreans calling for dialogue with the North, were also held, media reported.
The North has threatened nuclear attacks on the United States, South Korea and Japan after new U.N. sanctions were imposed in response to its latest nuclear arms test in February.
The North has also been angry about annual military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces, describing them as a ‘hostile’ act. The United States dispatched B52 and B2 stealth bombers from their bases to take part.
But along with the new threat on Tuesday, the North’s KCNA raised the possibility of dialogue.
‘If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologise for all anti-DPRK hostile acts, big and small, and show the compatriots their will to stop all these acts,’ KCNA cited the North’s military as saying.
A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman later told a briefing the North Korean ultimatum was not worth a response and South Korea was waiting for the North to make a ‘wise decision’.
Last week, the South’s President Park Geun-hye offered talks but the North rejected the overture as a ‘cunning’ ploy.
Park will meet U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on May 7 to discuss economic and security issues, including ‘countering the North Korean threat’, the White House said on Monday.
The U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a North Korean missile test or nuclear test were possible but he believed it was trying to tone down its the war of words.
‘The DPRK leadership is trying to figure out a way to off-ramp from the heightened state of rhetoric that we’ve been seeing for the past several weeks,’ the official told reporters.
North Korea faced difficulties trying to ‘fix and tune up’ its Soviet-era conventional weapons, and that was why it wanted nuclear weapons, and the missiles to deliver them.
‘They are replacing that decreasing conventional capability with increasing asymmetric capability of weapons of mass destruction, intercontinental ballistic missiles and special operations forces,’ the official said.
The United States has offered talks with the North, but on the pre-condition that it abandons its nuclear weapons ambitions. North Korea deems its nuclear arms a ‘treasured sword’ and has vowed never to give them up.
Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, ending a trip to the region dominated by concern about North Korea, on Monday stressed his interest in a diplomatic solution.
A day earlier Kerry had appeared to open the door to talking without requiring the North to take denuclearisation steps in advance. Beijing, he said, could be an intermediary.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests but it was not believed to be near weapons capability.
Missile launches and nuclear tests by North Korea are both banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions that were expanded after the North’s February test.
The aim of the North’s aggression, analysts say, is to bolster the leadership of Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old grandson Kim Il-Sung, or to force the United States, which has 28,000 troops in South Korea, to open talks.