x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

North Korea missile-test fears grow as posturing continues

There is no sense of public panic, however, as North Koreans prepare to party to celebrate the appointment of their leader, Kim Jong Un.

North Koreans dance beneath a mosaic painting of the late leader Kim Il Sung during a mass folk dancing gathering in Pyongyang.
North Koreans dance beneath a mosaic painting of the late leader Kim Il Sung during a mass folk dancing gathering in Pyongyang.

PYONGYANG // North Korea delivered a fresh round of rhetoric yesterday, claiming that it had "powerful striking means" on standby for a missile launch.

It fuelled speculation in Seoul and Washington that the country was preparing to test a medium-range missile during its upcoming national celebrations.

On the streets of Pyongyang, meanwhile, North Koreans celebrated the anniversary of the appointment of their leader, Kim Jong Un, to the country's top party post - one in a slew of titles collected a year ago in the months following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

In South Korean capital, Seoul, the country's unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, urged Pyongyang to cool down, engage in dialogue and reverse its decision to suspend operations at a joint industrial park just north of their shared border.

"We strongly urge North Korea not to exacerbate the crisis on the Korean peninsula," he said.

The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a nonmilitary agency that deals with relations with South Korea, said North Korea's "striking means" have been "put on standby for a launch and the co-ordinates of targets put into the warheads." It did not clarify further.

The statement was the latest in a torrent of warlike threats seen outside Pyongyang as an effort to raise fears and pressure Seoul and Washington into changing their policy on North Korea.

Officials in South Korea and the United States said Pyongyang appeared to be preparing to test-fire a medium-range missile designed to reach the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.

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 its neighbouring nations and the US.

North Korea already has been punished for launching a long-range rocket in December and conducting an underground nuclear test in February.

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 might escalate into a serious conflict.

"North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions ... skating very close to a dangerous line," the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said in Washington on Wednesday. "Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation."

Foreign experts have dubbed the missile that officials believe Pyongyang is readying the "Musudan", named after the north-eastern village where North Korea has a launch pad.

It has a range of 3,500km and is designed to reach US military installations in Guam and Japan, experts said.

Bracing for a launch that officials said could take place at any time, Seoul has deployed three naval destroyers, an early-warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system, a defence ministry official said in Seoul. Japan has deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors around Tokyo.

But officials in Seoul played down security fears, noting that no foreign government had evacuated its citizens from either Korean capital.

The US secretary of state John Kerry was due to arrive in Seoul today for talks with South Korean officials about the growing tensions.

"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 foreign governments have been calmly responding," the foreign ministry spokesman, Cho Tai-young, said yesterday.

In Pyongyang, meanwhile, there was no obvious sense of panic.

Across the city, workers were preparing the city for a series of April holidays.

North Korean students put on suits and traditional dresses to celebrate Kim Jong Un's appointment as first secretary of the Workers' Party a year ago.

A flower show and art performances were scheduled for the next few days in the lead-up to the nations' biggest holiday on April 15, marking the birthday of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, the father of the country's second leader, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather of the current leader.