The US has delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test to avoid stoking tensions with North Korea, as fears escalated that weeks of angry rhetoric could erupt into conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
The Pentagon’s disclosure that it would reschedule the test due in California next week comes as the international community grows increasingly nervous that the situation could spiral out of control.
A US defense official said US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel postponed the Minuteman 3 test at Vandenberg Air Force Base until next month due to concerns it “might be misconstrued by some as suggesting that we were intending to exacerbate the current crisis with North Korea.”
“We wanted to avoid that misperception or manipulation,” the US official told reporters. “We are committed to testing our ICBMs to ensure a safe, secure, effective nuclear arsenal.”
North Korea, incensed by UN sanctions following its nuclear and missile tests, and by South Korean-US military drills, has issued a series of apocalyptic threats of nuclear war in recent weeks.
It has also reportedly loaded two intermediate-range missiles on mobile launchers and hidden them in underground facilities near its east coast, raising speculation it is preparing for a provocative launch.
Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang huddled at the weekend to discuss a warning from the North’s authorities that their safety could not be guaranteed after Wednesday if a conflict broke out.
Most of their governments have made it clear they have no immediate plans to withdraw personnel, and several suggested the advisory was a ruse to fuel growing global anxiety over the crisis.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday he saw no immediate need to withdraw his country’s diplomats.
Hague also told reporters that North Korea is showing no sign of gearing up for “all-out conflict” by repositioning its armed forces, and called for calm.
The top national security adviser to South Korean President Park Geun-hye said yesterday the warning was another ploy to force the South and the US to reach out with face-saving concessions.
“We believe the North is trying to turn the situation around by making the US send a special envoy, the South to offer dialogue, and China or Russia to act as a mediator,” Kim Jang-soo said.
Meanwhile, South Korea and the US postponed a major military meeting due to take place in Washington, an official said yesterday.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Seoul counterpart, General Jung Seung-jo, were to coordinate policy on the North and other issues during an annual Military Committee Meeting on Tuesday next week.
However, the meeting between the two allies has been delayed at Seoul’s request, a spokesman for Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters.
“The decision to delay the meeting has been made ... due to the current particular situation of our national defense,” he said.