— South Korea's military is stepping up preparations for anticipated missile launches by North Korea. Meanwhile, the Cabinet minister in Seoul in charge of North-South relations says it is up to Pyongyang to keep in operation the only joint project of the two Koreas.
South Korea has dispatched two of its warships, equipped with advanced missile tracking radar, amid rising concern North Korea could soon conduct provocative missile launches.
One ship has been placed off the west coast of the Korean peninsula, the other is monitoring the east coast.
South Korea's semi-official news agency, Yonhap - quoting what is described as a top government official - reports North Korea has now placed a second intermediate-range missile on a mobile launcher.
The Ministry of National Defense in Seoul on Thursday confirmed the movement of one missile.
The Yonhap report says both missiles have now been hidden in a military facility near the east coast.
Northeast Asia security specialist Alexandre Mansourov, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute of the John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, has a theory about the strategic motivations behind North Korea's brinkmanship.
Mansourov, who studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, says North Korea might expect further provocation will make Washington and the U.N. Security Council hesitant to impose harsher sanctions on a state already quite isolated and impoverished.
“They want to scare the world well enough so that after the missile test or nuclear test when we decide to convene and pass another round of sanctions against them, another round of condemnation, we would think twice, do we really want to bring the escalation by another notch up or not,” said Mansourov.
South Korean officials and independent defense analysts speculate Pyongyang may time missile launches to coincide with an April 15 national holiday. That is when North Korea celebrates “The Day of the Sun” to commemorate the birth of its late founder, Kim Il Sung.
At the only joint project involving the two Koreas, the Kaesong industrial complex, operations were suspended Friday, which is a national holiday in North Korea.
On the two previous days, the North did not allow any cargo trucks or South Korean citizens to enter. The vehicles and the managers of numerous small factories making household goods were not given permits required to cross the border.
Ryoo Kihl-jae, the Cabinet minister in charge of the South's relations with the North, in lieu of diplomatic ties, was asked at what point would South Korea consider pulling its officials and factory managers out of the complex.
The Unification Minister says the government is “willing to clear out the South Koreans in the Kaesong industrial complex if it is required for their safety.” Ryoo adds, however, the present assessment is that "the situation is not very dangerous" for the 608 South Korean nationals and six Chinese voluntarily remaining inside the zone in the
About 100 South Koreans plan to exit the zone and return home Saturday.
Bracing for possibilities
The Unification minister says the government is “bracing for all possibilities” from the threats posed by North Korea concerning the safety of the South Korean people.
Ryoo, however, is not closing the door totally to the possibility of better relations. South Korea, he tells correspondents, “will adopt a flexible approach and provide assistance together with the international community” to Pyongyang should it choose “to walk the right path towards change.”
North Korea last month renounced the 1953 armistice it signed along with China and the U.S.-led U.N. Command, which ended three years of devastating war. Since abrogating the cease-fire it has declared a state of war existing between the two Koreas and repeatedly threatened to launch a nuclear strike on the United States and its Pacific region bases.
Officials in Seoul and Washington say they have detected no signs of any North Korean troops mobilizing.
South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed-wire fence, near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, April 5, 2013.
A couple looks at a map showing the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, at the Imjingak pavilion in Paju, north of Seoul, April 5, 2013.
U.S. Army Patriot missile air defence artillery batteries are seen at U.S. Osan air base in Osan, south of Seoul, April 5, 2013.
South Korean soldiers take part in military training near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, April 4, 2013.
U.S. soldiers wear gas masks while attending a demonstration of their equipment during a ceremony to recognize the battalion's official return to the 2nd Infantry Division based in South Korea at Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, April 4, 2013.
South Korean vehicles turn back after being refused entry to Kaesong, North Korea, April 3, 2013.
Anti-war protesters raise signs during a rally denouncing the joint military drills between the South Korea and the United States near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, April 3, 2013.
North Koreans attend a rally against the United States and South Korea in Nampo, North Korea, April 3, 2013.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang March 31, 2013 in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency.