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S. Korea says North's missile launch may be imminent

North Korean soldiers take part in a shooting exercise, on April 6, 2013
N.Korean soldiers train using targets with images of South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin (left) and a US soldier, at an undisclosed location, a photo taken by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 6, 2013. A top South Ko

A top South Korean security official said Sunday that North Korea may test-launch a missile this week, as the United States delayed its own missile test due to soaring tensions on the peninsula.

Kim Jang-Soo, chief national security adviser to President Park Geun-Hye, said a test-launch or other provocation could come before or after Wednesday, the date by which the North has suggested that diplomats leave Pyongyang.

North Korea, incensed by UN sanctions following its nuclear and missile tests and by South Korean-US military drills, has issued a series of apocalyptic threats of nuclear war in recent weeks.

It has also reportedly loaded two medium-range missiles on mobile launchers and hidden them in underground facilities near its east coast, raising speculation it is preparing for a provocative launch.

Graphic details on the MB-25 Musudan and its range
Graphic details on the MB-25 Musudan and its range

"There are no signs of a full-scale war as of now, but the North will have to prepare for retaliation in case of any local war," said Kim.

The spate of threats was intended to force the South and the United States to reach out with face-saving concessions, he said.

Diplomats fear the rhetoric has created a situation which could spiral out of control, and the US delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test to avoid stoking tensions with the North.

A US defence official said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel postponed the Minuteman 3 test at Vandenberg Air Force Base until next month due to concerns it "might be misconstrued by some as suggesting that we were intending to exacerbate the current crisis with North Korea".

And South Korea and the US postponed a major military meeting due to take place in Washington, Seoul's military said Sunday, reportedly due to fear of a provocation while Seoul's military chief is away.

Foreign diplomats and tourists board an Air Koryo flight to Beijing at the airport in Pyongyang, on April 6, 2013
A group of foreign diplomats and tourists board an Air Koryo flight to Beijing at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 6, 2013.

Diplomats in Pyongyang huddled at the weekend to discuss a warning from the North's authorities that their safety could not be guaranteed after April 10 if a conflict broke out.

Most of their governments have made it clear they have no immediate plans to withdraw personnel, and some suggested the advisory was a ruse to fuel growing global anxiety over the crisis.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle Sunday reiterated that "any deadline after which North Korea would no longer ensure the security of embassies is unacceptable", his ministry said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he saw no immediate need to withdraw his country's diplomats.

Soldiers of the US Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion wear protective gear during a display in Uijeongbu, on April 4, 2013
Soldiers of the US Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion wear protective gear to give a display of their equipment at Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, on April 4, 2013.

Hague also told the BBC the North is showing no sign of gearing up for "all-out conflict" by repositioning its armed forces, and called for calm.

He said there was a "danger of miscalculation by the North Korean regime which has worked itself up into this frenetic state of rhetoric in recent weeks and the danger that they would believe their own paranoid rhetoric".

"But it's also important to stress that the international response to this, including our response, must be clear, united and calm," Hague added.

China is the North's sole major ally but its patience with Pyongyang also shows signs of wearing thin.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China opposes "provocative words and actions" from any party in the region and would "not allow troublemaking on China's doorstep", in sharply worded comments Saturday to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Beijing said it had asked the North to ensure the safety of its diplomats.

The North's mobilised missiles are reported to be untested Musudan models which are believed to have a range of around 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometres) that could theoretically be pushed to 2,485 miles with a light payload.

That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.

The North has no proven inter-continental ballistic missile capability that would enable it to strike more distant US targets, and many experts say it is unlikely it can even mount a nuclear warhead on a mid-range missile.

After non-stop escalation including the public deployment of US warships and planes to the region, the Pentagon move was a welcome measure to cool tensions, said Yang Moo-Jin from Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"The US military may have felt that now was the time to pace itself after weeks of hectic military confrontation," he told AFP.

"If the North really launches intermediate-range missiles as widely feared, the US may be partially blamed for having pushed it to take such drastic action by deploying extremely threatening weaponry near the Korean peninsula."

Western tourists returning from organised tours in Pyongyang -- which have continued despite the tensions -- said the situation there appeared calm.

"We're glad to be back but we didn't feel frightened when we were there," said Tina Krabbe, from Denmark.