PYONGYANG, North Korea — The prospect of a North Korean missile launch is “considerably high,” South Korea’s foreign minister told lawmakers today as Pyongyang prepared to mark the April 15 birthday of its founder, historically a time when it seeks to draw the world’s attention with dramatic displays of military power.
The missile is expected to be a medium-range Musudan missile with a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles) capable of flying over Japan, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told lawmakers in Seoul. Earlier a Defense Ministry official said preparations appeared to be complete, and that the launch could take place at any time.
North Korean officials have not announced plans to launch a missile, but have told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that it will not be able to guarantee their safety starting today. It has also urged tourists in South Korea to take cover, warning a nuclear war was imminent. However, most diplomats and foreign residents appeared to be staying put.
Such threats are, however, seen as rhetoric and an attempt by North Korea to scare foreigners into pressing their governments to pressure Washington and Seoul to change their policies toward Pyongyang, and to boost the military credentials of its young leader, Kim Jong Un.
On the streets of Pyongyang, however, the focus was less on preparing for war and more on beautifying the city ahead of the nation’s biggest holiday. Soldiers hammered away on construction projects, gardeners got down on their knees to plant flowers and trees, and students marched off to school, belying the high tensions.
Last year, the days surrounding the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current ruler, was marked by parades of tanks, goose-stepping soldiers and missiles, as well as the failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket widely believed by the U.S. and its allies in the West to be a test of ballistic missile technology. A subsequent test in December went off successfully, and that was followed by the country’s third underground nuclear test on Feb. 12 this year, possibly taking the regime closer to mastering the technology for mounting an atomic bomb on a missile.
The resulting U.N. sanctions and this spring’s annual U.S.-South Korean military drills have been met with an unending string of threats and provocations from the North.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday that North Korea’s persistent nuclear and missile programs and threats have created “an environment marked by the potential for miscalculation.”
He said the U.S. military and its allies would be ready if North Korea tries to strike.
The Musadan is a ballistic missile, and South Korea says its launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution banning any ballistic activity by North Korea.
Despite such tidings of war, the people of Pyongyang went about their daily lives.
Associated Press journalists in the North Korean capital saw soldiers wearing hard hats rumbling past in the back of a truck as they prepared for another day’s work doing construction. In recent years, military personnel have been pressed into helping build the many urban renewal projects that have been prioritized since Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011.
In a sign they have been diverted away from preparing for conventional warfare, they are commonly referred to as “soldier-builders,” and are also called upon to help plant and harvest rice and other crops in a nation that suffers from chronic food shortages.
North Korea sporadically holds civil air raid drills during which citizens practice blacking out their windows and seeking shelter. But no such drills have been held in recent months, local residents said.
“I’m not at all worried. We have confidence in our young marshal” Kim Jong Un, a cleaning lady at the Koryo Hotel said as she made up a guest’s bed. “The rest of the world can just squawk all they want but we have confidence in his leadership.
“We are resolved to stay and defend him until the end,” she said. “It may be hard for the rest of the world to understand, and those who are worried are welcome to leave,” she said in typically nationalistic language.
But there was no sign of an exodus of foreigners from Seoul or Pyongyang. Britain and other governments with embassies in Pyongyang said they had no immediate plans to withdraw but would continue assessing the situation.
North Korea has been escalating tensions with the U.S. and South Korea, its wartime foes, for months. The tightened U.N. sanctions that followed the nuclear test drew the ire of North Korea, which accused Washington and Seoul of leading the campaign against it. Annual U.S.-South Korean military drills south of the border have further incensed Pyongyang, which sees them as practice for an invasion.
Last week, Kim Jong Un enshrined the pursuit of nuclear weapons — which the North characterizes as a defense against the U.S. — as a national goal, along with improving the economy. North Korea also declared it would restart a mothballed nuclear complex.
Citing the tensions with Seoul, North Korea on Monday pulled more than 50,000 workers from the Kaesong industrial park, which combines South Korean technology and know-how with cheap North Korean labor. It was the first time that production was stopped at the decade-old factory park, the only remaining symbol of economic cooperation between the Koreas.
Pyongyang also has moved to its eastern seaboard what is believed by U.S. and South Korean intelligence to be a mid-range missile capable of hitting targets in Japan, such as the U.S. military installations on that country’s main island, as well as the U.S. territory of Guam. South Korean officials say North Korea will likely test-fire the missile into the sea as a display of its military prowess.
The United States and South Korea have raised their defense postures, as has Japan, which deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors in key locations around Tokyo. And Locklear said the U.S. military would be ready to strike back if provoked.
One historian, James Person, noted that it isn’t the first time North Korea has warned foreign embassies to prepare for a U.S. attack.
He said that in 1968, following North Korea’s seizure of an American ship, the USS Pueblo, Pyongyang persistently advised foreign diplomats to prepare for a U.S. counterattack. Cables from the Romanian mission in Pyongyang showed embassies were instructed to build anti-air bunkers “to protect foreigners against air attacks,” he said.
The cables were obtained and posted online by the Wilson Center’s North Korea International Documentation Project.
Person called it one of North Korea’s first forays into what he dubs “military adventurism.”
“In 1968, there was some concern there would be an attack, but (the North Koreans) certainly were building it up to be more than it was in hopes of getting more assistance from their allies at the time,” Person said by phone from Alexandria, Virginia.
“I think much of it was hot air then. Today, I think again it’s more hot air,” he said. “The idea is to scare people into pressuring the United States to return to negotiations with North Korea. That’s the bottom line.”