'Very high’ chance of N Korean missile test, South told

Ballistic launch 'may materialise any time’, foreign minister tells Seoul parliament

Japan Self-Defence Forces soldiers refuel a unit of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo today. Japan has also deployed Aegis radar-equipped destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in response to North Korea's threats, according to its government. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

Japan Self-Defence Forces soldiers refuel a unit of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo today. Japan has also deployed Aegis radar-equipped destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in response to North Korea's threats, according to its government. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

 

South Koreans braced for the "very high" chance of a North Korean missile test as soon as today as a top American military commander said the totalitarian state has moved at least one projectile to its eastern coast.

The possibility of a ballistic missile launch is "very high" and "may materialise any time from now", South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung Se told lawmakers in Seoul today.

South Korean and US forces upgraded their joint surveillance "Watchcon" status by one level to monitor an imminent missile fire, Yonhap reported, citing unnamed military officials.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of US Pacific Command, confirmed yesterday to Congress that North Korea moved at least one of its medium-range Musudan missiles to its eastern coast.

Efforts by Kim Jong-un's regime to build and test weapons of mass destruction "represent a clear and direct threat to US national security and regional peace and stability," he said.

Mr Kim's regime has threatened to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes against its enemies, and this week pulled workers from a joint industrial complex with South Korea.

Tensions have risen since North Korea's February atomic weapons test in defiance of tightened United Nations sanctions that were backed by China, its closest ally and biggest trading partner.

Mr Kim's conduct is an attempt to gain attention and concessions for his impoverished state rather than a sign that war is imminent, according to Huh Moon Young, an analyst at state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Highly calculated

"North Korea is not looking to self-destruct," Mr Huh said. "It's trying to raise an issue with the international community and also grab the US and China's attention in a highly calculated manner."

South Korea's national security chief Kim Jang Soo predicted on April 7th that North Korea may stage a provocation, such as firing a projectile, around April 10th. The North has been prepared for a fourth underground atomic weapons test at its Punggye-ri site since conducting its last one, according to South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok.

Meanwhile, Japan has deployed missile interceptors around the country as prime minister Shinzo Abe's government vowed to protect its citizens. Any weapons test may coincide with the April 15th anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung, the current leader's grandfather.

North Korea on April 13th last year fired a long-range rocket that disintegrated shortly after lift-off, but then the country successfully launched another in December.

The Musudan missile has a range of between 4,800km and 5,500km - enough to be a potential threat to Guam, though not to Hawaii or the US mainland, Adm Locklear yesterday told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Adm Locklear said Mr Kim, who became the third-generation head of North Korea in December 2011, is "more unpredictable" than his late father and grandfather.

Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung always figured into their "provocation cycle an off-ramp of how to get out of it. And it's not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it," he said.

Psychological warfare

Foreigners in South Korea could be in danger and should prepare for evacuation in case of war, the regime's official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday. This statement is "psychological warfare", South Korean president Park Geun Hye's spokeswoman, Kim Haing, said by phone.

The American mission in Seoul has not seen any unusual military movements suggesting preparations for war, and the US is "not encouraging Americans to take any special travel preparations", State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters yesterday.

More than 53,300 North Korean workers again did not show up for work at the Kaesong industrial complex today, extending for a second day the suspension of operations for 123 South Korean companies based there, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung Suk said in Seoul.

Currently, 406 South Koreans remain in Kaesong and 115 of them are scheduled to leave the park today, Mr Kim said.

Bloomberg