South Korea yesterday said there was a “very high” probability that North Korea would launch a medium-range missile “at any time” as a show of strength, despite diplomatic efforts to soften its position.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Seoul 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.
However, all was calm in the South Korean capital, long used to North Korean invective under its 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un. Offices worked normally and customers crowded into city-center 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 Kim’s formal ascent to power, the 20th anniversary of rule by his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, and the anniversary on Monday of the birth of the young Kim’s grandfather, state founder Kim Il-sung.
The near-daily threats to South Korea and the US 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 Korean Central 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, 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 since the North has failed to inform international bodies — as it did in previous instances — of the path it is expected to take. However, 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.
“According to intelligence obtained by our side and the US, the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high,” Yun told a parliamentary hearing, adding that the North 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.
Yonhap also reported that South Korea, which has not joined a US-led global missile defense system, was planning to develop a system of its own. It quoted an unidentified senior military official as saying this would involve early warning radars, ship-to-air and land-based systems, to be used in conjunction with US early warning satellites.
Yun said he was coordinating with China and Russia “to make efforts to persuade North Korea to change its attitude.”
China is North Korea’s sole major ally, although its influence over Pyongyang is open to question. Moscow backed North Korea in Soviet times, though its influence has waned.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman issued a fresh appeal for restraint, but said nothing about any possible effort to bring about a change in the North’s policy.