North Korea intensified threats of an imminent conflict against the US and South Korea yesterday, warning foreigners to evacuate the South to avoid being dragged into “thermonuclear war.”
The North’s latest message belied an atmosphere free of anxiety in the South Korean capital, where the city center was bustling with traffic and offices operated normally.
Pyongyang has shown no sign of preparing its 1.2 million-strong army for war, indicating the threat could be aimed partly at bolstering North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, 30, the third in his family to lead the country.
The North, which threatens the US and its “puppet,” South Korea, on a daily basis, is marking anniversaries this week that could be accompanied by strong statements or military displays.
The warning to foreigners in the South, reported by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said once war broke out “it will be an all-out war, a merciless, sacred, retaliatory war to be waged by [North Korea].”
“It does not want to see foreigners in South Korea fall victim to the war,” the agency quoted the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee as saying. “The committee informs all foreign institutions and enterprises and foreigners, including tourists ... that they are requested to take measures for shelter and evacuation in advance for their safety.”
None of the embassies in Seoul appeared to have issued any directives to their nationals and airlines reported no changes in their schedules. Schools catering to foreign pupils worked without interruption.
The warning, read out on North Korea’s state television in a bulletin that interrupted normal programming, was the latest threat in weeks of high tension following UN sanctions slapped on Pyongyang for its latest nuclear arms test.
It followed the North’s suspension of activity at the Kaesong joint industrial park just inside North Korea, all but closing down the last remnant of cooperation between the neighbors. North Korean workers failed to turn up yesterday.
Speculation remained high that the North may launch some provocative action this week — perhaps a missile launch or a nuclear arms test.
In a previous appeal, its authorities urged diplomats in Pyongyang to leave on grounds their safety could not be assured beyond today. None have appeared to have taken any such action.
Also featured in broadcasts were country-wide reports of celebrations marking Saturday’s 20th anniversary of the current leader’s father, Kim Jong-il, taking over North Korea’s leadership and next Monday’s anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, post-World War II state founder Kim Il-sung.
A spokeswoman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House dismissed the warning, saying no one felt under threat.
A government source in Seoul said a North Korean medium-range missile, reported to have been shunted to the east coast, had been tracked and was believed to be ready for launch.
“Technically, they can launch it as early as tomorrow,” the source said.
However, a US embassy official in Seoul said a directive issued last week saying there was no imminent threat to Americans in South Korea remained valid.