North Korea on Tuesday urged all foreigners in South Korea to prepare for evacuation, saying the Korean peninsula is headed for “thermonuclear war” and intensifying threats of military conflict with the South and its ally the United States.
The statement was greeted largely with indifference by foreigners in the South, where offices remained open and traffic bustled as usual.
But tensions between the two Koreas are approaching an “uncontrollable situation,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Tuesday amid concerns that North Korea could be preparing for another missile or nuclear test.
North Korea, which has been issuing vitriolic threats of nuclear war since the United Nations imposed sanctions in response to Pyongyang's defiant third nuclear weapon test in February, is marking two anniversaries this week that could be accompanied by displays of military muscle.
Tuesday’s statement by North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, an organization dealing with regional affairs, said the situation on the peninsula “is inching close to a thermonuclear war due to the evermore undisguised hostile actions of the United States and the South Korean puppet warmongers.”
"The committee informs all foreign institutions and enterprises and foreigners including tourists in Seoul and all other parts of South Korea that they are requested to take measures for shelter and evacuation in advance for their safety,” it said.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Cho Tae-young dismissed the statement as rhetoric aimed at further escalating tensions.
“North Korea’s rhetoric is psychological and propaganda warfare intended to further ratchet up tensions on the Korean peninsula,” the spokesperson said.
None of the foreign embassies in Seoul appeared to have issued any directives to their nationals, and airlines reported no changes in their schedules and tourists continued to pour into the country on Tuesday, according to Reuters news agency.
But in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North-South factory park located just north of the heavily fortified border between the two countries, operations have ground to a halt after no North Korean employees showed up for work on Tuesday.
North Korea said Monday it was “temporarily suspending” operations at the park and withdrawing its more than 50,000 workers who provide labor for South Korean businesses there, effectively severing the last economic link between the two countries that had been a symbol of cooperation.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that North Korea’s “abrupt” decision to suspend operations was “very disappointing.”
"How long should we see this endless vicious cycle of [North Korea] creating crises before reaching compromise in exchange for aid, and again creating crises before compromise and aid?” she said.
Hwang Woo-yeo, leader of South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party, said the government should compensate Kaesong's South Korean businesses for their losses “in order to avoid dampening the will to invest in the complex.”
Some 400 South Korean factory managers remain at the complex, which is a key currency earner for the cash-strapped North and had remained in operation through previous crises in intra-Korean relations in its nine-year history.
The standstill at Kaesong comes amid North Korea's almost daily ramping up of threats against United States and South Korea in recent weeks.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged North Korea to refrain from “provocative rhetoric” and warned that tensions on the peninsula could slip out of control.
"The current level of tension is very dangerous. A small incident caused by miscalculation or misjudgment may create an uncontrollable situation," he told reporters in Rome.
Amid the rising tensions, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen is scheduled to visit South Korea later this week, the military alliance announced Tuesday.
The trip is unrelated to the current tensions and “had been planned for a long time,” according to a NATO official.
But the military alliance is "watching the developments in the Korean Peninsula with great concern," Rasmussen told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Last week, North Korea warned it could not guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats within its borders after April 10, but the significance of the date remains unclear.
Pyongyang is preparing for celebrations this Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the date when the current leader’s father Kim Jong Il took over North Korea's leadership, and next Monday is the birth date of the family dynasty founder Kim Il Sung.
On Tuesday, the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said that should North Korea choose to launch a missile in the coming days, the U.S. would be capable of intercepting it.
But the U.S. might choose not to do so unless the missile’s projected trajectory shows it to be a threat to the U.S. or its allies, Locklear told Congress.
North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles represents a clear and direct threat to the United States and its allies in the region, he said.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.