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US commander says eyes on N. Korea after site activity report

Adm. Phil Davidson, center, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, speaks with the media at the Chief of Mission Residence at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, on Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Mass Communication 1st Specialist Robin W. Peak/U.S. Navy via AP)

SINGAPORE (AP) -- A U.S. military commander said Thursday that his country was keeping a close watch on North Korea following reported activity at a rocket launch site.

The head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson said he was committed to maintaining U.N. sanctions against North Korea and a "readiness of our forces there."

Davidson added that he was working with countries including South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and France to catch any sanctions breaches via methods like ship-to-ship transfers.

"Many of those nations will contribute either maritime patrol aircraft or ships later this year. They're all sequencing them into their schedules," he said.

On Wednesday, foreign experts and a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by Seoul's spy service said North Korea was restoring facilities at a long-range rocket launch site that it dismantled last year as part of disarmament steps. Satellite photos taken at various dates showed new activity at the Tongchang-ri launch site, northwest of Pyongyang.

The reports surfaced less than a week after President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Vietnam but failed to reach any agreement on the North's nuclear program.

Davidson spoke to reporters ahead of a lecture in Singapore on Thursday, where he will talk about the importance of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Among the key factors is unity among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with which the U.S. will hold a joint maritime exercise in 2019, Davidson said.

Last October, the bloc held its first joint maritime exercise with China, a major trading partner that's locked in territorial disputes with several of its members in the South China Sea and a wider trade dispute with the U.S.

"We welcome China in the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific. ASEAN unity is the stability that this region needs, and we're not seeking to drive divergences within ASEAN and make them choose between us and China," Davidson said.

He also addressed recent comments by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who called for a review of his country's 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington, lest it gets dragged into a "shooting war" in the South China Sea.

The treaty calls on the U.S. and the Philippines to come to each other's defense against an external attack.

"I should note that the Philippines relies heavily on the freedom of the seas and the South China Sea especially," Davidson said. He added that he takes the treaty "quite seriously" and that the U.S. embassy is in contact with the Philippines regarding the matter.

Davidson took command of around 380,000 civilian and military personnel in the region last April.

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