By Josh Smith

 

SEOUL (Reuters) - Any delay in joint military drills with the United States would depend on North Korea's behavior during the 2018 Winter Olympics, officials in Seoul said on Wednesday, while a halt to group tours from China suggested Beijing is still wary.

 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is seeking to soothe relations with China and the North before the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February and suggested on Tuesday he was prepared to postpone the drills with the United States.

 

Pyongyang sees the joint exercises as preparation for war, while Beijing is still angry about the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system, commonly known as THAAD, by South Korea.

 

China believes the system's powerful radar can see far into its territory, but Seoul argues it needs it to guard against the threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.

 

Seoul has proposed the potential delay in drills to Washington, which was also discussed during a summit last week between Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping, an official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul said on Wednesday.

China has in the past proposed a "freeze for freeze" arrangement under which North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a halt to the exercises. However, Washington has rejected the idea and Pyongyang has shown little interest in negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Ottawa on Tuesday he was unaware of any plans to "alter longstanding and scheduled and regular military exercises".

North Korea has stepped up its missile and nuclear tests to an unprecedented rate this year, and any new provocation from the North would "inevitably have an impact" on the exercises, the Blue House official said.

"It is a display of the president's strong message that North Korea must not conduct any provocation (during the Olympics)," the official told reporters.

TOUGHER SANCTIONS

North Korea has been hit with increased international sanctions over its missile and nuclear tests this year.

Japan's Asahi newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing an unidentified person connected to South Korean intelligence, that North Korea was conducting biological weapons experiments to test the possibility of loading anthrax-laden warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Asahi report said the U.S. government was aware of the tests, which were meant to ascertain whether the anthrax bacteria could survive the high temperatures that occur during warheads re-entry from space.

Reuters was unable to verify the report independently.

The United States has given China a draft resolution for tougher U.N. sanctions on North Korea and is hoping for a quick vote on it by the U.N. Security Council, a Western diplomat said on Tuesday, however Beijing has yet to sign on.

Details of the draft given to China last week were not immediately available, but the United States is keen to step up global sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up a weapons program aimed at developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.

GROUP OFF

China resumed at least some restrictions on group tours into the South, South Korea's inbound travel agency said on Wednesday. The issue broke out last year as part of China's retaliation over the South's THAAD deployment.

"I was told from my boss this morning that our Chinese partners (based in Beijing and Shandong) said they won't send group tourists to South Korea as of January," the official from Naeil Tour Agency told Reuters by phone. The move was probably due to visa refusals by Chinese authorities, the official said.

Neither China's foreign ministry nor national tourism administration responded immediately to a request for comment. Beijing has never officially confirmed a ban or restrictions on tourism.

The move against tour groups came despite Moon's recent visit to China, which showed some signs of a thaw in relations since the THAAD row broke out.

Three representatives at Beijing travel agencies told Reuters that they were not currently organizing group tours to South Korea.

"The tourism administration issued a notice last week saying individual trips were fine, but not group trips," one agent said.

Another confirmed that the tourism administration had issued the notice, while a third said: "At the moment we have no group trips to South Korea."

A travel agency in the northern province of Shandong also said they could not organize group trips. Three others said they could, but with restrictions such as the number of people in the groups.

One source in China said the reason for reinstating the ban was to rein in overly aggressive tour operators who had been rolling out package deals to South Korea too quickly in the eyes of authorities.

The Blue House official told reporters South Korea's foreign ministry had concluded that China had not yet officially lifted the visa ban for group tours, but that there could be a delay between official moves to lift restrictions and tour operators being informed.

(Reporting by Dahee Kim, Hyonhee Shin, and Yuna Park in SEOUL, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Adam Jourdan in SHANGHAI, and Pei Li, Gao Liangping and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait)