North Korea has urged foreigners to leave South Korea to avoid a possible military conflict, but Pyongyang's latest warning apparently has done little to disrupt life in Seoul.
North Korean state television broadcast a message Tuesday, telling tourists and enterprises to evacuate Seoul and South Korea "for their own safety," because of the risk of what it called a "nuclear war."
But businesses in Seoul were operating normally after the threat, and there was no sign of unusual traffic leaving the city.
North Korea issued a similar warning last week to foreign embassies in its capital, Pyongyang, urging diplomats to leave by Wednesday. None of the embassies has reported evacuating personnel.
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed North Korea's latest threat as "more unhelpful rhetoric" that further isolates the impoverished country.
"The North Korean leadership would be wiser to focus on developing its economy and assisting the North Korean people who suffer under this kind of leadership that chooses development of missile programs and nuclear weapons rather than the feeding of its own people," Carney said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deeper concern, telling reporters on a visit to Rome that tension on the Korean peninsula has risen to a "very dangerous level."
"If any small incident is caused by miscalculation or misjudgment, it may create an uncontrollable situation," Mr. Ban said. "That is why I have been urging the DRPK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) authorities to refrain from this provocative rhetoric, and I have been urging the countries concerned in and around the Korean peninsula to exercise their influences with North Korea."
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said that if North Korea carries out a military provocation, U.S. troops and their South Korean allies are ready to respond. Testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, Admiral Samuel Locklear said Washington and Seoul have developed a response plan based on a better understanding of the behavior of North Korean leaders.
"I do think it is a good planning effort," Locklear said. "It has provided U.S. General [James] Thurman and his counterparts there the opportunity to ensure the right command and control and the right coordination is in place, to ensure that as we approach future provocations, that we do so in a predictable way that allows us to manage those provocations, hopefully without unnecessary escalation that none of us want."
Locklear said he would order the interception of a North Korean missile if it poses a direct threat to the United States or its allies. He said he would not recommend shooting down any North Korean missile regardless of its trajectory. The admiral said it would not take long to determine where such a missile is going to land.
South Korean media quoted government officials as saying North Korea appears to be preparing to test fire another missile in the coming days.
North Korea has threatened to attack the South, the United States and U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region in retaliation for the latest economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the U.N. Security Council. Those sanctions have been aimed at punishing Pyongyang for carrying out nuclear and missile tests in defiance of Security Council resolutions.
Japan responded to Pyongyang's threats on Tuesday, deploying ballistic missile interceptors around Tokyo to defend the city from a potential North Korean missile strike.
International relations analyst Nick Bisley of Australia's La Trobe University said a new missile launch by Pyongyang would not be as dangerous as the prospect of a fourth North Korean nuclear test.
"A missile test is provocative and will certainly add to the sense of insecurity in the region," Bisley said. "A further nuclear test would ... have a lot of people very disconcerted, given that it would show they have a lot more capacity to set up tests, to undertake them, and would probably indicate that they are taking further steps down the nuclearization path."
Pyongyang also took a step to cut its last economic ties with Seoul, suspending production at a jointly operated industrial zone where South Korean manufacturers employ cheap laborers in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.
None of the 53,000 North Korean employees at the complex showed up for work on Tuesday. About 400 South Korean managers and other staff remained, unsure of whether operations will resume.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said the decision to withdraw workers from the facility will hurt North Korea's international credibility as a place to do business.
"Investment is all about being able to anticipate results and trust, and when you have the North breaking international regulations and promises like this and suspending Kaesong while the world is watching, no country in the world will invest in the North,'' Ms. Park said.
Kaesong factory owners' association chief Han Jae-kwon said if the situation continues, the small and medium South Korean enterprises will face bankruptcy. He said the group wants to send a delegation to North Korea to discuss the fate of the Kaesong complex. He also called on Seoul and Pyongyang to hold talks to find a way to immediately normalize the facility's operations.
After touring the complex on Monday, North Korean Workers' Party Central Committee Secretary Kim Yang Gon said Pyongyang will reevaluate whether the near decade-old project will continue. Kim said that will depend on Seoul's attitude in the next few days.
Cedric Leighton, a crisis management analyst and retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, said North Korea wants to send a message that it can live without the joint industrial zone and the millions of dollars earned by its workers each year.
"They are clearly looking at a way to retain and reinvigorate their own economy through a system of self-sufficiency," Leighton said. "And that could mean a very interesting development, because as opposed to the views that we've heard before about Kim Jong Un being more open to the rest of the world, what this might instead presage is a possibility of a greater isolation of North Korea, if that's possible."
Admiral Locklear said Mr. Kim appears to be pursuing a policy of provocation less predictable than that of the North Korean leader's father and grandfather, whom he said had given themselves an "off ramp" to exit confrontations with the international community.
Steve Herman contributed to this report from Seoul and Victor Beattie contributed from Washington.