By JEAN H. LEE, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea delivered a fresh round of rhetoric Thursday with claims it had "powerful striking means" on standby for a missile launch, while Seoul and Washington speculated that the country is preparing to test a medium-range missile during upcoming national celebrations.
On the streets of Pyongyang, meanwhile, North Koreans celebrated the anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un's appointment to the country's top party post — one in a slew of titles collected a year ago in the months after father Kim Jong Il's death.
In the capital of neighboring South Korea, the country's point person on relations with the North, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, urged Pyongyang to cool down, engage in dialogue and reverse its decision to suspend operations of a joint industrial park just north of their shared border.
"We strongly urge North Korea not to exacerbate the crisis on the Korean peninsula," Ryoo said.
The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, a nonmilitary agency that deals with relations with South Korea, said its "striking means" have been "put on standby for a launch and the coordinates of targets put into the warheads." It didn't clarify further. The statement was the latest in a torrent of warlike threats seen outside Pyongyang as an effort to raise fears and pressure Seoul and Washington into changing their North Korea policy.
Officials in Seoul and Washington say Pyongyang appears to be preparing to test-fire a medium-range missile designed to reach the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
Such a launch would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity, and mark a major escalation in Pyongyang's standoff with neighboring nations and the U.S.
North Korea already has been punished in recent months for launching a long-range rocket in December and conducting an underground nuclear test in February.
Analysts do not believe North Korea will stage an attack similar to the one that started the Korean War in 1950. But there are concerns that the animosity could spark a skirmish that could escalate into a serious conflict.
"North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions ... skating very close to a dangerous line," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Washington on Wednesday. "Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation."
The missile that officials believe Pyongyang is readying has been dubbed the "Musudan" by foreign experts after the northeastern village where North Korea has a launch pad. The missile has a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles) and is designed to reach U.S. military installments in Guam and Japan, experts say.
Bracing for a launch that officials said could take place at any time, Seoul deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system, a Defense Ministry official said in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department rules. Japan deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors around Tokyo.
But officials in Seoul played down security fears, noting that no foreign government has evacuated its citizens from either Korean capital. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was headed to Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials on the tensions.
"North Korea has continuously issued provocative threats and made efforts to raise tension on the Korean peninsula ... but the current situation is being managed safely and our and foreign governments have been calmly responding," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters Thursday.
The war talk is seen as a way for North Korea to draw attention to the precariousness of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and to boost the military credentials of young leader Kim Jong Un.
The Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce, not a peace treaty, and the U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations.
For weeks, the U.S. and South Korea have staged annual military drills meant to show the allies' military might. North Korea condemns the drills as rehearsal for an invasion.
Citing the tensions, 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.
South Korea's point man on North Korea, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, urged Pyongyang to stop heightening tensions and to discuss the restart of operations in Kaesong.
In Pyongyang, meanwhile, there was no sense of panic. Across the city, workers were rolling out sod and preparing the city for a series of April holidays.
North Korean students put on suits and traditional dresses to celebrate Kim Jong Un's appointment as first secretary of the Workers' Party a year ago.
A flower show and art performances are scheduled over the next few days in the lead-up to the nations' biggest holiday, the April 15 birthday of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, father of the country's second leader, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather of the current leader.
Kim Jong Il elevated the military's role during his 17-year rule under a policy of "military first," and the government devotes a significant chunk of its annual budget to defense. Human rights groups say the massive spending on the military and on development of missile and nuclear technology comes at the expense of most of its 24 million people. Two-thirds face chronic food shortages, according to the World Food Program.
No military parade or mass events were expected over the coming week, but North Korea historically uses major holidays to show off its military power, and analysts say Pyongyang could well mark the occasion with a provocative missile launch in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring the North from nuclear and missile activity.
"However tense the situation is, we will mark the Day of the Sun in a significant way," Kim Kwang Chon, a Pyongyang citizen, told The Associated Press, referring to the April 15 birthday. "We will celebrate the Day of the Sun even if war breaks out tomorrow."
During last year's celebrations, North Korea failed in an attempt to send a satellite into space aboard a long-range rocket. The U.S. and its allies criticized the launch as a covert test of ballistic missile technology.
A subsequent test in December was successful, and that was followed by the country's third underground nuclear test on Feb. 12, possibly taking the regime closer to mastering the technology for mounting an atomic weapon on a missile.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
Follow AP's Korea bureau chief on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.