North Korea is expected to launch a medium-range missile from its east coast as early as today, following the suspension of operations at the Gaesong Industrial Complex, Tuesday.
The North also called on foreigners living in South Korea to devise evacuation plans, seen as another act to ratchet up concern.
“All foreign institutions, companies and tourists in Seoul and other parts of the country should set up plans to take shelter and devise a way to evacuate the country,” the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC) said in a statement.
The North appears to have completed preparations to fire a medium-range missile after it moved two Musudan missiles to its east coast last week and mounted them on mobile launchers, government officials said.
“The South Korean and U.S. military are closely watching the area, while maintaining military readiness,” a military official said. The Musudan, with a range of more than 3,000 kilometers, could fly as far as the U.S. base in Guam.
In response, the South has deployed three Aegis destroyers equipped with SPY-1 radar, which can track hundreds of targets as far as 1,000 kilometers away, the official said.
The Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun reported Tuesday that the communist nation notified some foreign diplomats in Pyongyang, Friday, that it would launch missiles toward the Pacific Ocean, Wednesday.
The anticipation echoes National Security Office chief Kim Jang-soo’s remarks Sunday that the communist dictatorship may make additional provocations, including missile launches.
The North’s readiness to launch missiles was detected last week when the Ministry of National Defense confirmed the move of a Musudan missile to its east coast, and Yonhap News reported Friday that North Korea had loaded two intermediate-range missiles onto mobile launchers and hidden them at an unidentified facility, also near the east coast, citing a senior military official.
In response to the North’s latest provocative moves, Japan has dispatched Aegis-equipped destroyers carrying sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors to the East Sea to shoot down any missiles headed towards its territory.
The North’s track record suggests it is about to launch missiles. Its second nuclear test in May 2009 resulted in U.N. Security Council sanctions and, in anger at the punishment, the North conducted test firings of six Scud and Nodong missiles two months later. The North was slapped with stricter U.N. sanctions last month for its third nuclear test.
Watchers expect Pyongyang to conduct a missile test within the week. “As the North has vowed to flex its military muscle, it is possible it will fire off missiles,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor and director of North Korean Studies at Korea University.
“In order to commemorate its key national anniversaries in April, it may carry out the launch between Wednesday and Monday.” Last year, Kim Jong-un was given the titles of first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on April 11 and became first chairman of the National Defense Commission on April 13.
In addition, the anniversary of the birth of nation founder Kim Il-sung falls on April 15, known as the Day of the Sun. Last year, the North held a large-scale military parade to mark the centenary of his birth.
There is speculation North Korean may also forge ahead with another nuclear test, given that there is still one tunnel that will enable it to do so with a short lead-in time.
But some say Pyongyang is far from pushing the button for a fourth test. “North Korea will not opt for a nuclear test at the present time. A nuclear test is the North’s hidden card and without using it, there are some options to provoke (the United States and South Korea) like opening the facility to produce highly-enriched uranium and launching mid-range missiles,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at the Department of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University. “Should other options not work out, it may depend on it, but at this point, a nuclear test is not on the cards.”