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(LEAD) N.K. leader conducts first inspection of military unit this year

All News 11:30 January 19, 2017

(ATTN: CLARIFIES info in para 2; ADDS more details in last 5 paras)

SEOUL, Jan. 19 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited a military unit, Pyongyang's state media said Thursday, marking his first inspection of the country's defense establishment in the new year.

The North's leader toured a company under the Korean People's Army (KPA)'s Unit 233, stressing the need to boost its combat preparations, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said without revealing the date of his inspection.

Kim was satisfied that soldiers are keeping weapons and combat equipment "always ready to go into action, thinking only of combat readiness awake or asleep," according to the KCNA.

The tour comes amid North Korea's threat to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

(LEAD) N.K. leader conducts first inspection of military unit this year - 1

The North's leader said in his New Year's message that the country has entered the final stage of its preparations to launch an ICBM.

Pyongyang has warned that it can fire-off the missile at any place and time if its leadership gives an order.

North Korea is presumed to have built two missiles believed to be ICBMs and placed them on mobile launchers for test-firing in the near future, South Korean military sources said.

The move has sparked speculation that the North could carry out a provocative act at an earlier date that previously anticipated. Many analysts are predicting Pyongyang could launch a missile at some point near March or April to protest against a joint military drill between Seoul and Washington.

Kim's inspection also came as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office Friday.

"His field guidance appears aimed at boosting the military's morale," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "The move can moreover send a message to the U.S. that Pyongyang is ready for both confrontation and dialogue."

Seoul's unification ministry said that Pyongyang is seen as preparing for some sort of provocative action, warranting close watch.

"We are closely monitoring the situation as the North said it is ready to launch an ICBM if the leadership gives an order," a ministry official said.

The latest on-site tour to a military unit came after the North's leader visited several factories in an apparent bid to show the image of Kim caring for ordinary North Koreans.

The KCNA reported that Kim looked around barracks, including sleeping quarters and an education center, accompanied by Hwang Pyong-so, director of the KPA's general political bureau, and Ri Yong-gil, a vice chief of the KPA general staff.

The Seoul official said that Kim's checking of the unit's infrastructure facilities appears to be aimed at cheering up soldiers by showing "the military version" of his policy of caring for the people.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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