North Korea increases its war rhetoric
Pyongyang, North Korea -
Hinting at a missile launch, North Korea delivered a fresh round of war rhetoric with claims it has “powerful striking means” on standby. Seoul and Washington speculated that it is preparing to test-fire a missile designed to be capable of reaching the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
The latest rhetoric came as new US intelligence was revealed showing North Korea is now probably capable of arming a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, though South Korea's Defence Ministry said on Friday it does not believe that Pyongyang has mastered that technology.
On the streets of Pyongyang, North Koreans were in party mode as they celebrated a slew of key anniversaries, leading up to Monday's commemoration of the 101st birthday of the country's late founder, Kim Il-sung.
But while there was calm in Pyongyang, there was condemnation in London, where foreign ministers from the Group of Eight nations slammed North Korea on Thursday for “aggressive rhetoric” that they warned would only further isolate the impoverished, tightly controlled nation.
North Korea's provocations, including a long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test in February, “seriously undermine regional stability, jeopardise the prospects for lasting peace on the Korean peninsula and threaten international peace and security”, the ministers said in a statement.
In the capital of neighbouring South Korea, the country's point person on relations with the North, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, urged Pyongyang to engage in dialogue and reverse its decision to pull workers from a joint industrial park just north of their shared border, a move that has brought factories there to a standstill.
“We strongly urge North Korea not to exacerbate the crisis on the Korean peninsula,” Ryoo said.
North Korea probably has advanced its nuclear knowhow to the point where it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, but the weapon wouldn't be very reliable, the US Defence Intelligence Agency has concluded. The DIA assessment was revealed Thursday at a public hearing in Washington.
However, South Korea believes that Pyongyang does not yet have a nuclear device small enough to put on a missile, Defence Ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok said, in response to a question about the DIA assessment.
“Our military's assessment is that North Korea has not yet miniaturised a nuclear device,” Kim said.
President Barack Obama warned the unpredictable communist regime that his administration would “take all necessary steps” to protect American citizens.
In his first public comments since North Korea escalated its rhetoric, Obama urged the north to end its nuclear threats, saying it was time for the isolated nation “to end the belligerent approach they have taken and to try to lower temperatures”.
“Nobody wants to see a conflict on the Korean peninsula,” Obama added, speaking from the Oval Office alongside United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was headed to Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials before heading on to China.
“If anyone has real leverage over the North Koreans, it is China,” US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress on Thursday. “And the indications that we have are that China is itself rather frustrated with the behaviour and the belligerent rhetoric of Kim Jong-un.”
In the latest threat from Pyongyang, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a non-military agency that deals with relations with South Korea, said “striking means” have been “put on standby for a launch and the coordinates of targets put into the warheads”. It didn't clarify, but the language suggested a missile.
The statement was the latest in a torrent of war-like threats seen outside Pyongyang as an effort to raise fears and pressure Seoul and Washington into changing their North Korea policies, and to show the North Korean people that their young leader is strong enough to stand up to powerful foes.
Officials in Seoul and Washington say Pyongyang appears to be preparing to test-fire a medium-range missile designed to be capable of reaching Guam. Foreign experts have dubbed the missile the “Musudan” after the north-eastern village where North Korea has a launchpad, saying it has a range of 3 500km.
Such a launch would violate UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity, and mark a major escalation in Pyongyang's standoff with neighbouring nations and the United States. North Korea already has been punished by new UN sanctions for the rocket launch and nuclear test.
Analysts do not believe North Korea will stage an attack similar to the one that started the Korean War in 1950. But there are concerns that the animosity could spark a skirmish that could escalate into a serious conflict.
“North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions... skating very close to a dangerous line,” US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Washington on Wednesday. “Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation.”
Bracing for a launch that officials said could take place at any time, Seoul deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system, a Defence Ministry official said in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department rules. Japan deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors around Tokyo.
But officials in Seoul played down security fears, noting that no foreign government has evacuated its citizens from either Korean capital.
“North Korea has continuously issued provocative threats and made efforts to raise tension on the Korean peninsula... but the current situation is being managed safely and our and foreign governments have been calmly responding,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Cho Tai-young told reporters on Thursday.
Still, Taiwan urged its citizens on Thursday “to suspend travel to South Korea for business, tourism and educational purposes unless it is absolutely necessary”.
The Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce, not a peace treaty, and the US and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations.
For weeks, the US and South Korea have staged annual military drills meant to show the allies' military might. North Korea condemns the drills as rehearsal for an invasion.
In retaliation, North Korea for days barred South Koreans from crossing the border to get to factories in Kaesong where they make everything from shoes to suits using North Korean labour. Citing the tensions, North Korea on Monday pulled its more than 50 000 workers from the Kaesong complex, forcing many factories to stop production and jeopardising the future of the last joint project between the two Koreas.
Discouraged South Korean managers continued leaving Kaesong, packing their cars with goods and belongings.
In Pyongyang, however, there was no sense of turmoil. Across the city, workers were rolling out sod and planting trees in the lead-up to the nation's biggest holiday, the April 15 birthday of Kim Il-sung, father of the country's second leader, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather of the current leader.
No military parade or mass events are expected over the coming week, but North Korea historically uses major holidays to show off its military power, and analysts say Pyongyang could well mark the occasion with a provocative missile launch.
“However tense the situation is, we will mark the Day of the Sun in a significant way,” Kim Kwang Chon, a Pyongyang citizen, told The Associated Press, referring to the April 15 birthday. “We will celebrate the Day of the Sun even if war breaks out tomorrow.”
During last year's celebrations, North Korea failed in an attempt to send a satellite into space aboard a long-range rocket. The US and its allies criticised the launch as a covert test of ballistic missile technology.
The subsequent launch in December was successful, and that was followed by the country's third underground nuclear test on February 12, possibly taking the regime closer to mastering the technology for mounting an atomic weapon on a long-range missile. -