(Associated Press)- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il rallied with his top army commanders, the country's official media reported, amid growing concern the isolated communist regime may conduct its first nuclear test.
Japan's vice foreign minister said the test could come as early as this weekend, the anniversary of Kim's appointment as head of the Korean Workers' Party in 1997. Japan said it was stepping up monitoring of North Korea, reports Trend.
Kim's meeting was the reclusive leader's first reported public appearance in three weeks and his first since Tuesday when his government shocked the world and alarmed its neighbors by announcing plans to test a nuclear weapon.
Kim congratulated the battalion commanders and political instructors for "bolstering the Korean People's Army as invincible revolutionary armed forces," the country's official Korean Central News Agency, KCNA, reported late Thursday.
Kim also urged them to "further strengthen the battalions," KCNA said.
Attendees responded with "stormy cheers" and chants of slogans such as "human bullets and bombs," KCNA said. It said they vowed to fight for Kim, the supreme commander, "at the cost of our lives."
It was unclear when the rally took place, but it could show that Kim is trying to polish his credentials with the military at a sensitive time when the international community is stepping up pressure on Pyongyang to scrap any plans for a
Kim's last reported public activity was when KCNA reported on Sept. 15 that he visited the scenic Diamond Mountain near the border with South Korea.
The North claims to have nuclear weapons, but hasn't performed any known test to prove that. Six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions have been stalled for almost a year, and North Korea says it needs an atomic arsenal to deter a possible attack from the United States.
Washington has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading North Korea.
Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi, currently in Washington, told the Japan's TV Asahi:
"Based on the development so far, it would be best to view that a test is possible this weekend."
Japan stepped up monitoring of North Korea.
"In consideration of various possibilities, we are preparing for whatever may happen," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said.
Japan has two intelligence-gathering satellites and launched a third in September that can monitor the North's nuclear weapons and missile programs.
On Thursday, a U.S. military plane capable of detecting radiation took off from Okinawa in southern Japan, thought to be a monitoring exercise in case North Korea carries out a test, according to media reports.
Overnight at the United Nations, Security Council experts reached agreement on a statement urging North Korea to cancel its planned nuclear test and return immediately to the six-nation talks. But the text needs final approval from council members.
Japan's U.N. Ambassador Kenzo Oshima said a statement "most likely" would be approved and read out on Friday morning after capitals give final approval.
The Japanese draft also urges North Korea to work toward implementation of a September 2005 agreement in which the North pledged to give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees. The six-party talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
North Korea has boycotted the six-nation talks since late last year, angered by American financial restrictions imposed over the North's alleged illegal activities such as money laundering and counterfeiting.
While all council members view the possibility of a North Korea test with alarm, there were different views on how to approach Pyongyang's announcement.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the United States wanted "a strong response" from the Security Council, not just "a piece of paper." But China, Russia and Japan indicated they wanted a more moderate initial response.