SEOUL, South Korea – SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea is deploying troops, artillery and tanks near Pyongyang in apparent preparation for a massive military parade marking key national events later this year, South Korea said Tuesday.
The military buildup near the capital began in mid-July amid high tensions on the peninsula, South Korea's Defense Ministry said in a report submitted to a parliamentary committee.
"Preparation for a massive national event is under way" in North Korea and the move is presumably related to a key Workers' Party meeting in September and the 65th anniversary of the party's founding in October, it said.
North Korea would likely use the military assets to stage a parade in Pyongyang, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity citing department policy.
North Korea often marks important national holidays with military parades, often featuring newly developed missiles and weapons.
North Korea said in June that it would elect new ruling Workers' Party leaders in a party conference in early September, sparking speculation that the move is aimed at boosting a government campaign to hand over power from leader Kim Jong Il to a son.
It's widely believed that Kim is preparing to transfer power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, and many North Korea watchers say next month's party meeting is aimed at giving the son a key party job.
Speculation on the succession intensified after the 68-year-old Kim suffered a reported stroke in 2008, with Kim's apparently falling health prompting concerns about instability and a possible power struggle in the nuclear-armed country if he were to die without anointing a successor.
The North's ties with South Korea were plunged to their lowest point in years when a Seoul-led international investigation in May blamed Pyongyang torpedoing in March the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. North Korea denies involvement, and has issued a series of threats to South Korea over military drills between South Korea and the United States.
"The army and people of the (North) will never tolerate any reckless moves of the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet group of traitors to provoke a nuclear war but (will) launch a sacred retaliatory war ... based on nuclear deterrent any time they deem necessary," North Korea's No. 2 leader Kim Yong Nam said Tuesday, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported.
A similar threat was issued last month by the North's powerful National Defense Commission.
The North routinely threatens attacks whenever South Korea and the U.S. hold joint military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion. The U.S. says it has no intention of invading the North.
South Korea and the U.S. are currently holding annual computerized military drills. They also conducted large-scale joint naval exercises last month and plan to hold more maneuvers in the Yellow Sea early next month.
The two Koreas officially remain at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
China's top nuclear envoy is to visit Seoul later this week to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program and his recent trip to Pyongyang, according to South Korea's Foreign Ministry.
Wu Dawei met senior North Korean officials last week in Pyongyang and discussed the resumption of six-nation talks on ending the North's nuclear program. Pyongyang's state media reported that Wu and North Korean officials reached a full consensus of views on all the matters discussed but didn't provide details.
North Korea walked away from the nuclear disarmament talks last year in protest at an international condemnation of a long-range rocket launch. Prospects for restarting the talks were put into doubt after the warship sinking.
Former President Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, plans to leave for North Korea on Tuesday to try to gain the freedom of an American imprisoned for illegally entering the communist country, U.S. officials said. Aijalon Mahli Gomes was arrested in January before later being sentenced to eight years in prison and fined $700,000.
North Korea agreed to release Gomes if Carter were to come to bring him home, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press. The official and a second who confirmed the trip spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.