PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — 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, a step toward mastering the technology for mounting an atomic bomb on a missile.
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.
The moves are seen as an attempt by North Korea to scare foreigners into pressing their governments to pressure Washington and Seoul to avert a conflict, and boost the militaristic credentials of its young and relatively untested leader, Kim Jong Un.
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.
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 chronically from 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 the typical nationalistic style that North Koreans use while talking to foreigners.
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. Another possibility is that Pyongyang would launch such a 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."
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has sought to re-engage North Korea with dialogue and humanitarian aid since taking office in February, expressed exasperation Tuesday with what she called the "endless vicious cycle" of Seoul answering Pyongyang's hostile behavior with compromise, only to get more hostility.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Matthew Pennington, Donna Cassata and Richard Lardner in Washington contributed to this report.
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