SEOUL (AFP) – North Korea said Tuesday the Korean peninsula was headed for “thermo-nuclear” war and advised foreigners to consider leaving South Korea, as the UN chief warned of a potentially “uncontrollable” situation.
Tuesday’s advisory — greeted largely with indifference — followed a similar one last week to foreign embassies in Pyongyang, to consider evacuating by April 10 on the grounds war may break out.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching close to a thermo-nuclear war,” the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
Saying it did not want to see foreigners in South Korea “fall victim”, the statement requested all foreign institutions, enterprises and tourists “to take measures for shelter and evacuation”.
The committee blamed the heightened war risk on the “warmongering US” and its South Korean “puppets” who were intent on invasion.
The “thermo-nuclear war” threat has been wielded several times in recent months — most recently on March 7 — despite expert opinion that North Korea is nowhere near developing such an advanced nuclear device.
“It is our current assessment that there is no immediate risk to British nationals in South Korea,” a British embassy spokesman said, echoing similar statements from the US, French and other missions.
Last week’s warning to embassies in Pyongyang was also largely dismissed as empty rhetoric, with most governments making it clear they had no plans to withdraw personnel.
“It’s almost comic,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group.
“They want to rattle the investment market, create pressure and make people nervous.
“But it’s just not working. It’s as if they didn’t get a rise out of the embassies in Pyongyang, so they’re just moving on to the next target,” Pinkston said.
The South Korean stock market closed slightly up Tuesday, before the KCNA statement was published.
The Korean peninsula has been locked in a cycle of escalating military tensions since the North’s third nuclear test in February, which drew toughened UN sanctions.
Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric has reached fever pitch in recent weeks, with near-daily threats of attacks on US military bases and South Korea in response to ongoing South Korean-US military exercises.
Yonhap news agency Tuesday cited South Korean intelligence as saying the North had completed preparations for an expected missile test-launch — possibly to coincide with April 15 celebrations for the birthday of late founder Kim Il-Sung.
“Technically, it can fire off (a missile) tomorrow,” it quoted a senior military official as saying.
Japan said Tuesday it had deployed Patriot missiles in its capital as a pre-emptive defence measure.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said during a visit to Rome he had spoken to the Chinese leadership to try to calm tensions, and would discuss the issue with President Barack Obama on Thursday.
“The current level of tension is very dangerous, a small incident caused by miscalculation or misjudgement may create an uncontrollable situation,” he said.
However Tuesday’s threat was unlikely to worry South Korea’s foreign community of around 1.4 million that has calmly weathered the rhetorical storm thus far.
“A few months ago I would be worried but by now I think they’re just trying to scare people,” said Jone Geyskens, 21, a Belgian studying in Seoul.
“I know a lot of South Koreans, they don’t seem to be scared.”
Earlier Tuesday North Korean workers followed Pyongyang’s order to boycott the Kaesong joint industrial zone with South Korea, signalling the possible demise of the sole surviving symbol of cross-border reconciliation.
The North announced Monday it was taking the unprecedented step of pulling out its 53,000 workers and shutting the complex down indefinitely.
Established in 2004, Kaesong has never closed before. Pyongyang’s move reflects the depth of the current crisis, which has otherwise been notable more for fiery rhetoric than action.
Kaesong, 10 kilometres (six miles) inside North Korea, is a crucial hard currency source for the impoverished North, mainly through its cut of the workers’ wages.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the North’s action was “very disappointing” and displayed a total disregard for investment norms that would return to haunt Pyongyang in the future.
“If North Korea, under the full eyes of the international community, breaches international rules and promises like this, then there will be no country or company which will invest in North Korea,” Park said.
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