(ATTN: UPDATES with additional remarks, more details and background in last 11 paras; ADDS more photo)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is not showing any signs of provocation, such as rolling out a new strategic weapons system, the head of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said Thursday, while insisting the impoverished North may be too caught up in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and the amplified effects of sanctions.
"There's people suggesting that perhaps there'll be a rollout of a new weapons system. Ah, Maybe. But we're not seeing any indications right now, any sort of lashing out," USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams said in a webinar hosted by Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
His remark comes amid widespread speculation that the North may unveil a new weapons system in the near future to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers' Party on Oct. 10.
CSIS has reported what it claimed to be signs of a possible test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile at North Korea's main submarine shipyard in northeastern Sinpo.
Abrams argued that the impoverished North, as well as its military, may be too caught up with keeping the country whole against international sanctions the intended effects of which may be coming to full force and amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The USFK chief noted North Korea's imports from China dropped by about 50 percent after the United States and the U.N. Security Council imposed a series of sanctions to punish it for its sixth and latest nuclear test in September 2017.
He said imports from China plunged 85 percent after the North shut down its border with its neighbor in January.
"So there is a cumulative effect, economically, of COVID with the sanctions," Abrams said.
"So as a result, you know the regime right now, their military is focused principally on getting their country recovered and to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19," he told the virtual seminar.
Abrams, who also heads the United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea, said things were "pretty calm" and "steady" along the inter-Korean border.
"There have been some bumps and bruises along the way, but in general I would say North Korea is abiding by the comprehensive military agreement from September 2018," the general said, referring to the non-aggression military agreement signed by the two Koreas.
Regarding the proposed transition, in the event of war, of operational control (OPCON) of troops from the United States back to South Korea, the USFK chief said the allies are fully committed to executing their agreed plan and in due time, citing recent progress that he said surpassed those made in years.
"There's more progress in 2019 than in the previous three years. And so (we are) making a lot of great strides in meeting these conditions," Abrams said.
"But honestly, and I've said this multiple times before, we've got ways to go. The commitment that we have is that there's no movement of the goalposts," he added.
The USFK commander also insisted it was only right for South Korea to have OPCON.
"As a matter of policy, of course, we fully support a ROK four-star (general) commanding the wartime forces," he said, noting the U.S. has "only 28,500" troops stationed in South Korea. ROK stands for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.
As the head of the UNC, Abrams dismissed claims that the command may have gotten in the way of exchanges and reconciliation between the two Koreas.
"With regards to respecting the ROK sovereignty, of course that's a prime directive for the United Nations Command. and we absolutely do that. And there's just frankly so many falsehoods that have been spread," said Abrams.
His remark comes after Rep. Song Young-gil of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party said last month that the UNC must be stopped from interfering in inter-Korean relations.
Abrams argued rumors about the UNC coming between inter-Korean exchanges, including a proposed reunion of separated families in North Korea's Mount Kumgang, were simply "not true."
"United Nations Command does not enforce UN sanctions. Does not. Doesn't have the authority and nor will it," he said.
"It is obligated, however, as a member, and under the auspices of the United Nations to report any potential violations but it absolutely does not enforce UN sanctions," he added.
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