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By Bowen Xiao

Washington is closely monitoring Pyongyang for any signs of a potential missile launch or nuclear test during or around the end-of-year holiday season—what North Korean officials have described as a “Christmas gift.”

The United States said last week that it won’t accept a year-end deadline set unilaterally by North Korea to make concessions in nuclear talks. Stephen Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, said Washington is open to talks on denuclearization and urged Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, said on Dec. 22 that its leader, Kim Jong Un, had held a key regime meeting to work out future steps to bolster the country’s military capability.

Earlier this month, the North conducted what U.S. officials say was an engine test. North Korea described it as “crucial” and experts believe that it may have involved an engine for a space launch vehicle or long-range missile. Officials worry that it could be a prelude to the possible launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in the coming days or weeks.

“North Korea has been advancing. It has been building new capabilities,” Anthony Wier, a former State Department official who tracks nuclear disarmament for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told Reuters. “As long as that continues, they gain new capabilities to try new missiles to threaten us and our allies in new ways.”

Earlier this month, North Korea threatened the United States with a possible “Christmas gift” saying that the Trump administration was running out of time to salvage nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang said it was up to the United States to choose what Christmas gift it gets from the North.

Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters that a review of the possible launch sites in North Korea shows that they are “basically ready to go.” He said expected launches could involve tests of a sea-based ballistic missile or a solid-fuel rocket.

Using solid fuel allows North Korea to more quickly fuel up a rocket, providing less lead time for the United States or others to prepare. Sea-based launches are also more difficult to locate and would give less warning or time for the United States to react.

The Trump administration isn’t giving North Korea the concessions it demands, Peter Huessy, a senior defense consultant and director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told The Epoch Times last week.

“They are like a bully or kind of a criminal gang that extorts people. We are just not playing the extortion game anymore,” Huessy said.

On Dec. 20, Trump said on Twitter that he had discussed North Korea, among other topics, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The president also spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Dec. 21 about developments related to North Korea, Iran, and trade, according to a White House spokesman.

“President Trump and Prime Minister Abe agreed to continue close communication and coordination, particularly in light of recent threatening statements issued by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement, using North Korea’s official name.

The call came after North Korea said the United States was trying to drag out denuclearization talks ahead of the U.S. presidential election next year. Trump himself warned Kim of interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections earlier in December.

“He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November,” Trump said on Twitter, referring to Kim. “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised. NATO, China, Russia, Japan, and the entire world is unified on this issue!”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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