x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

South Korea says North likely to test-launch missile

There is a 'very high' probability that North Korea, after weeks of threats of war, will test-launch a medium-range missile at any time as a show of strength, South Korea says.

SEOUL AND WASHINGTON // There was a "very high" probability that North Korea, after weeks of threats of war, would test-launch a medium-range missile at any time as a show of strength, South Korea said yesterday.

Yun Byung-se, the foreign minister, said South Korea had asked China and Russia to intercede with the North to ease tension that has mounted since the UN Security Council imposed fresh sanctions on North Korea after its third nuclear arms test in February.

Most observers say Pyongyang has no intention of igniting a conflict that could bring its own destruction, but warn of the risks of miscalculation on the Korean peninsula.

All was calm in the South Korean capital Seoul, long used to North Korean invective under its 30-year-old leader Kim Jong-un. Offices worked normally and customers crowded into cafes.

Other officials in Seoul said surveillance of North Korean activity had been enhanced. Missile transporters had been spotted in South Hamgyong province along North Korea's east coast - a possible site for a launch.

North Korea observes several anniversaries in the next few days and they could be pretexts for displays of military strength. These include the first anniversary of Mr Kim's formal ascent to power, the 20th anniversary of rule by his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, and the anniversary, next Monday, of the birth of the young Kim's grandfather, state founder Kim Il-sung.

The near-daily threats to South Korea and the United States of recent weeks were muted in the North's state media yesterday, with the focus largely on the upcoming festivities.

State television showed mass gatherings, including women in traditional flowing robes, listening to addresses, laying flowers at monuments and taking part in a culinary competition.

The North's KCNA news agency said people were "doing their best to decorate cities". Another dispatch reported a "production upsurge" in the coal, steel, iron and timber industries, with figures showing a quarterly plan set by authorities had been "overfulfilled".

In Washington, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of US forces in the Pacific region, said the US military believed North Korea had moved an unspecified number of Musudan missiles to its east coast.

The trajectory of the missile, if launched, is unclear as the North has failed to inform international bodies of the path it is expected to take. But it is unlikely to be aimed directly at the South.

The Musudan has a range of 3,500km or more, according to South Korea, which would put Japan within range and may even threaten Guam, home to US bases. South Korea can be reached by the North's short-range Scud missiles.

Mr Yun, the foreign minister, told a parliamentary hearing: "According to intelligence obtained by our side and the US, the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high."

North Korea, he said, could launch a Musudan missile "at any time from now".

The US-South Korea Combined Forces Command in Seoul raised its "Watchcon 3" status, a normal condition, by one level to boost monitoring and increase the number of intelligence staff, a senior military official told the South's Yonhap news agency.

* Reuters