North Korea kept the world on edge yesterday over an expected missile launch, while turning its own energies to celebrating leaders past and present amid soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The US warned North Korea it was skating a “dangerous line” as South Korea remained on heightened alert for any missile test, that could start a whole new cycle of tensions in a region already on a hair-trigger.
However, the North’s state media focused its attention yesterday on the first anniversary of new leader Kim Jong-un becoming head of the ruling Worker’s Party and Monday’s birthday celebrations for late founder Kim Il-sung.
The official party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun praised Kim Jong-un as the “No. 1 man of conviction and will,” and credited him with the success of the North’s long range-rocket launch in December and February’s nuclear test.
“History has never seen any socialist leader like him,” the newspaper said.
The launch and test, along with the UN sanctions imposed for each, are at the core of the current crisis that has seen Pyongyang threaten nuclear strikes against the US and its allies.
South Korean intelligence says the North has prepared two mid-range missiles for imminent launch from its east coast, despite warnings from ally China to avoid provocative moves at a time of soaring military tensions.
In apparent reference to its missiles, North Korea said its units were on standby for a launch.
“The powerful strike means of our revolutionary armed forces are on standby for launch with precise coordinates of targets input into warheads,” the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by state media.
If fired, they will turn enemy strongholds into “a sea of fire,” it said.
Although Pyongyang has not announced any launch, many observers believe it will take place during the build-up to Monday’s birthday anniversary.
State media said foreign delegations had already begun arriving in Pyongyang for the event, which is one of the most important dates on the North’s calendar.
The missile launch may also coincide with some high-profile visits to South Korea, with both US Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Seoul this week.
Rasmussen held talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se yesterday, and they agreed Pyongyang should halt its bellicose rhetoric and provocative actions, Yun’s office said.
Yonhap news agency quoted military sources as saying that the North was moving multiple missiles around in an apparent bid to confuse outside intelligence-gatherers about its intentions.
“North Korea ... with its bellicose rhetoric, its actions, has been skating very close to a dangerous line,” US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Wednesday in Washington.
“Our country is fully prepared to deal with any contingency, any action that North Korea may take or any provocation that they may instigate,” Hagel added.
In London, G8 foreign ministers strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear activities and threats to the region and warned of further sanctions in the event of a missile launch.
The ministers “condemned in the strongest possible terms the continued development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs” by North Korea, “including its uranium enrichment,” they said in a statement after talks in London.