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Diplomats in N. Korea staying put amid tensions

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Foreign diplomats in North Korea appeared to be staying put Saturday, ignoring a warning by Pyongyang that they should consider evacuating their missions amid soaring nuclear tensions.

Pyongyang had informed embassies it could not guarantee their safety if a conflict broke out as concerns grew that the isolated state was preparing a missile launch.

But most of their governments made it clear they had no immediate plans to withdraw personnel, and some suggested the advisory was a ruse to fuel growing global anxiety over the current crisis on the Korean peninsula.

"The security of the German embassy and its exposure to danger are continually being evaluated," the German foreign ministry said in a statement. "For now, the embassy can continue working."

A British Foreign Office spokeswoman, commenting on the North's advisory, said: "We believe they have taken this step as part of their country's rhetoric that the US poses a threat to them."

The heads of EU missions in Pyongyang had been scheduled to meet Saturday, but Britain said it was a routine gathering and no major decision was expected.

In South Korea, a government official was quoted by the Yonhap news agency as saying that diplomats would ignore the North's appeal to leave.

"Most foreign governments view the North Korean message as a way of ratcheting up tension on the Korean peninsula," the official said.

Western tourists returning from organised tours in Pyongyang -- which have continued despite the tensions -- said the situation on the ground appeared calm, with life going on as normal.

"We're glad to be back but we didn't feel frightened when we were there," said Tina Krabbe, from Denmark, arriving in Beijing after five days in North Korea.

The embassy warning on Friday coincided with reports that North Korea had loaded two intermediate-range missiles on mobile launchers and hidden them in underground facilities near its east coast.

"The North is apparently intent on firing the missiles without prior warning," Yonhap quoted a senior South Korean government official as saying.

They were reported to be untested Musudan missiles which are believed to have a range of around 3,000 kilometres (1,860 miles) that could theoretically be pushed to 4,000 kilometres with a light payload.

That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even reach US military bases located on the Pacific island of Guam.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that Washington "would not be surprised" by a missile test, which would fit the North's "current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful and unconstructive rhetoric and actions".

North Korea, incensed by UN sanctions and South Korea-US military drills, has issued a series of apocalyptic threats of nuclear war in recent weeks.

The North has no proven inter-continental ballistic missile capability that would enable it to strike more distant US targets, and many experts say it is unlikely it can even mount a nuclear warhead on a mid-range missile.

Nevertheless, the international community is becoming increasingly skittish that, with tensions showing no sign of de-escalating, there is a real risk of the situation spiralling out of control.

The latest expression of concern came from Communist icon Fidel Castro, who warned the danger of a nuclear conflict erupting was higher than it had been at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

If war broke out on the Korean peninsula "there would be a terrible slaughter of people", Castro wrote in a front-page article in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party's newspaper.

The United Nations said it had no plans to pull staff out after the North Korean warning message to embassies and NGOs in Pyongyang.

According to the British Foreign Office spokeswoman, embassies and organisations were told to inform the Pyongyang authorities by Wednesday what assistance they would require should they wish to evacuate.

"Our understanding is that the North Koreans were asking whether embassies are intending to leave, rather than advising them to leave," the spokeswoman said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday insisted that tensions must be resolved through dialogue in a conversation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban was "confident the Chinese leadership would also do its best to help calm the situation and help Pyongyang to reverse course", according to a UN statement.

North Korea refused on Saturday to lift a ban -- in place since Wednesday -- on South Koreans accessing their companies in the Seoul-funded Kaesong industrial zone on the North side of the border.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130406/diplomats-n-korea-staying-put-amid-tensions