North Korea has completed preparations for a missile test that could come any day, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said as Pyongyang prepares 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.
In Pyongyang, however, the focus Wednesday 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 a sense that tensions on the Korean Peninsula have reached their highest point since the Korean War ended nearly 60 years ago.
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 capabilities. 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.
The resulting U.N. sanctions have been met with an unending string of threats and provocations from the North, raising tensions on the peninsula to their highest point since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to some experts. Pyongyang advised foreign embassies to consider evacuating their citizens by Wednesday, and warned tourists in South Korea to leave Seoul in case of an outbreak of war. However, most diplomats and foreign residents appeared to be staying put.
In Seoul, the defense ministry official said the North appeared prepared to carry out a missile launch at any time. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
He said Pyongyang's military is capable of conducting multiple missile launches involving Scud and medium-range Rodong missiles, as well as a missile transported to the east coast recently. He refused to say how Seoul obtained the information.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday that he concurred with an assessment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calling the tension between North Korea and the West the worst since the end of the Korean War.
"The continued advancement of the North's nuclear and missile programs, its conventional force posture, and its willingness to resort to asymmetric actions as a tool of coercive diplomacy creates an environment marked by the potential for miscalculation," Locklear told the panel.
He said the U.S. military and its allies would be ready if North Korea tries to strike.