Hagel Calls on North Korea to Tone Down Rhetoric

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said North Korea has “been skating very close to a dangerous line” and should tone down its “bellicose rhetoric” to ease mounting tensions in the region.

“Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation,” Hagel said yesterday at a Pentagon news conference. He said the U.S. is “fully prepared to deal with any contingency.”

Tensions have risen since North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test in February in defiance of tightened United Nations sanctions that were backed by China, its closest ally and biggest trading partner. Kim Jong Un’s regime has threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against its enemies, and this week pulled workers from a joint industrial complex with South Korea.

The possibility of a ballistic missile launch is “very high” and “may materialize anytime from now,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se told lawmakers in Seoul yesterday. South Korean and U.S. forces upgraded their joint surveillance “Watchcon” status by one level to monitor for an imminent missile firing, Yonhap reported, citing unnamed military officials.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress on April 9 that North Korea moved at least one of its medium-range Musudan missiles to its eastern coast. Imagery from a Japanese intelligence satellite shows the missile launchpad has been put in a raised position, Kyodo News reported today, citing an unidentified Defense Ministry official.

Stocks Fall

South Korean shares fell today, with the Kospi index down 0.2 percent at 11:17 a.m. in Seoul. The won strengthened 0.5 percent to 1,129.95 versus the dollar.

Japan is taking all precautions for potential North Korean action, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters today in Tokyo, declining to comment on the Kyodo report.

North Korea today blamed the South for this week’s suspension of operations at the jointly run Gaeseong industrial complex north of the border, while emphasizing the move was “temporary,” the official Korean Central News Agency said, citing an unidentified government spokesman. The future of the zone depends on South Korea’s attitude, the spokesman said.

More than 53,300 North Korean laborers didn’t show up for work yesterday, extending for a second day the halt in operations for 123 South Korean companies based there, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung Suk said.

About 110 South Koreans left Gaeseong yesterday, leaving behind nearly 300 others in the complex, the ministry said. Thirty-five others are scheduled to exit the park today.

‘Calculated Manner’

Kim’s conduct is an attempt to gain attention and concessions for his impoverished state rather than a sign that war is imminent, according to Huh Moon Young, an analyst at state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

“North Korea is not looking to self-destruct,” Huh said. “It’s trying to raise an issue with the international community and also grab the U.S. and China’s attention in a highly calculated manner.”

South Korea’s national security chief Kim Jang Soo said this week that North Korea may stage a provocation, such as firing a missile, around April 10. The North has been prepared for a fourth underground atomic weapons test at its Punggye-ri site since conducting its last one, according to South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday called on all parties to show restraint and take responsibility for nuclear-free Korean peninsula. He said that while some Chinese tour groups have canceled trips to North Korea, the situation on the border and diplomatic ties remain normal.

Anniversary Date

North Korea may fire a missile around April 15, the anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim said. Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, is the grandfather of the current leader. Last April 13, North Korea fired a long range rocket that disintegrated shortly after liftoff, then successfully launched another in December.

The Musudan missile has a range of 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) to 3,500 miles -- enough to be a potential threat to Guam, though not to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland, Locklear told a Senate committee in Washington.

Locklear called Kim “more unpredictable” than his late father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, who always figured into their “provocation cycle an off-ramp of how to get out of it.”

U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined yesterday to say whether North Korea has the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

“In the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the worst case,” Dempsey said at the news conference with Hagel.

North Korea is the most likely culprit for a March 20 cyber attack on South Korean banks and television stations, Science Ministry official Lee Seung Won said yesterday. Initial investigation results show “evidence similar” to methods used by North Korea’s reconnaissance bureau, Lee said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.