US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in South Korea fuelling fears that his presence could be viewed as a provocation by North Korea.
Mr Kerry will host four days of talks in East Asia amid speculation that the North’s unpredictable regime would launch a mid-range missile designed to reach as far as the US territory of Guam. He also plans to visit China and Japan.
The United States is engaged in intense diplomacy with China, the North’s benefactor, in an effort to lower tensions.
Mr Kerry’s trip coincides with the disclosure of a new US intelligence report which concludes that North Korea has advanced its nuclear knowhow to the point where it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.
The analysis, disclosed at a congressional hearing in Washington yesterday, said the Pentagon’s intelligence wing has “moderate confidence” that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that the weapon would be unreliable.
Despite recent threats to attack US bases and the South, North Korea started to welcome a stream of visitors for this Monday’s celebrations marking the birthday of its founder, Kim Il-sung.
North Korea has stationed as many as five medium-range missiles on its east coast, according to defence assessments by Washington and Seoul, possibly in readiness for a test launch that would demonstrate its ability to hit US bases on Guam.
“There are signs the North could fire off Musudan missiles any time soon,” an unnamed intelligence source in Seoul told Yonhap news agency.
The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a non-military agency that deals with relations with South Korea, said its “striking means” have been “put on stand-by for a launch and the co-ordinates of targets put into the warheads”.
It did not clarify further.
No war intention
Most observers say Pyongyang has no intention of starting a war that would be likely to bring its destruction but warn of the risks of miscalculation on the highly-militarised Korean peninsula.
There were few signs of alarm yesterday in Seoul, the South Korean capital, and financial markets shrugged off the risk of conflict with stocks posting a third day of gains.
New South Korean president Park Geun-hye met foreign businessmen and reassured them the country was safe and was working closely with the US and China, the North’s only major diplomatic ally.
Taiwan became the first country to warn its citizens against travelling to South Korea after Pyongyang said foreigners should leave, but Seoul hotels reported brisk business.
Meeting in London yesterday, foreign ministers from the G8 nations Britain, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia urged North Korea to “refrain from further provocative acts”.
“They condemned DPRK’s (North Korea’s) current aggressive rhetoric and confirmed that this will only serve to further isolate the DPRK,” a communique said.
Pyongyang issued a statement on the closure of the joint North-South Kaesong industrial zone, shut down when it ordered its workers out this week, terming the venture “the pinnacle of General Kim Jong-il’s limitless love for his people and brothers”.
The statement on the country’s KCNA news agency blamed Park for bringing the money-spinning venture to “the brink of shutting down”.
Since taking office in December 2011, Kim Jong-un has staged two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear weapons test.
The nuclear test in February triggered United Nations sanctions that Pyongyang has termed a hostile act and a precursor to invasion.
The Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said North Korea had a duty to preserve peace.
“Pyongyang should drop its illusions that it can make the world stay silent over its desire for nuclear arms through its hard-line stance and deceptions,” it said in an unusually strong editorial.