SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea’s point man on North Korea said Monday there is an “indication” that Pyongyang is preparing for a fourth nuclear test, a day after another Seoul official said a Pyongyang missile test may be in the works.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told a parliamentary committee Monday that “there is such an indication” of nuclear test preparationsat Pyongyang’s site in the country’s northeast.
South Korean defense officials have said the North completed preparations for a nuclear test at two underground tunnels. The North used one tunnel for its last nuclear test Feb. 12. The second remains unused.
Either a nuclear test or a missile test would escalate tensions that have been rising for weeks on the Korean Peninsula, and would likely invite a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and rocket activity. The U.S. and South Korea have been raising their defense posture, and foreign diplomats were considering a warning from Pyongyang that their safety in North Korea could not be guaranteed beginning Wednesday.
Ryoo made his comment about a nuclear test in answering a lawmaker’s question about whether there had been increased personnel and vehicle activities at the North’s nuclear test site.
After Ryoo spoke, a ministry official said Pyongyang has been ready to conduct a nuclear test any time it wants. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
North Korea has unleashed a flurry of war threats and provocations over U.N. sanctions for its last nuclear test, and over ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills, which the allies say are routine but Pyongyang says is a preparation for a northward invasion.
North Korea’s warning to diplomats prompted South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s national security director to say that Pyongyang may be planning a missile launch or another provocation around Wednesday, according to presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing.
During a meeting with other South Korean officials, the official, Kim Jang-Soo, also said the notice to diplomats and other recent North Korean actions are an attempt to stoke security concerns and to force South Korea and the U.S. to offer a dialogue. Washington and Seoul want North Korea to resume the six-party nuclear talks — which also include China, Russia and Japan — that it abandoned in 2009.
The roughly two dozen countries with embassies in North Korea appeared to be staying put, for now at least.
Sweden, which looks after U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington and North Korea lack diplomatic relations, and Brazil have no plans to withdraw any diplomats from Pyongyang at this stage, according to their foreign ministries Sunday. Brazil said it is keeping a close eye on the situation but at this time see no reason to change the decision. There has been no advisory that staff at the Egyptian Embassy will leave or suspend their work.
The Pentagon has strengthened missile defenses and made other decisions to combat the potential threat, and postponed a missile test, scheduled for this week in California, to avoid raising tensions further. U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said Sunday that he doesn’t believe North Korea will engage in military action soon, “but I can’t take the chance that it won’t.”
Dempsey said the U.S. has been preparing for further provocations or action, “considering the risk that they may choose to do something” on one of two nationally important anniversaries — April 15, the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, and April 25, the creation of the North Korean army.
Tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang led South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to announce Sunday that its chairman had put off a visit to Washington. The U.S. military said its top commander in South Korea had also canceled a trip to Washington.
The South Korean defense minister said Thursday that North Korea had moved a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast, possibly to conduct a test launch. His description suggests that the missile could be the Musudan missile, capable of striking American bases in Guam with its estimated range of up to 4,000 kilometers (2,490 miles).
Amid North Korea’s threats and warnings, it has blocked South Korean workers and cargo from entering its Kaesong industrial complex, where South Korean companies have employed thousands of North Korean workers for the past decade.
North Korea is not forcing South Korean managers to leave the factory complex, and about 500 of them remained at Kaesong on Monday. But the entry ban at the park, the last remaining inter-Korean rapprochement project, is posing a serious challenge to many of the more than 120 South Korean firms there because they are running out of raw materials and are short on replacement workers. More than a dozen of the companies have stopped their operations in Kaesong.
A high-level North Korean official visited the industrial zone on Monday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported. It said that Kim Yang Gon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, blamed South Korea for making it impossible to operate to zone as usual.
South Korea’s finance minister, Hyun Oh-seok, said Monday that it is “quite ridiculous” for North Korea to be closing the border at Kaesong. “North Korea has nothing to gain from this kind of things,” he said at a news briefing.