UN chief Ban: Korea crisis could become 'uncontrollable'

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "It may create an uncontrollable situation"

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned the crisis on the Korean peninsula may become "uncontrollable".

He once again urged North Korea to tone down its "provocative rhetoric" and to keep open a joint North-South Korean industrial complex.

Also on Tuesday, North Korea warned foreigners in South Korea to take evacuation measures in case of war.

Pyongyang has been making bellicose threats against South Korea, Japan and US bases in the region.

Speaking to reporters in Rome, Mr Ban said: "If any small incident is caused by miscalculation or misjudgement, it may create an uncontrollable situation.''

He also called for the Kaesong Industrial Complex to be kept open, calling it "one of the most successful cooperative projects between the South and North".

"This should not be affected by political considerations. This is a purely economic place," he went on.

Timeline: Korean tensions

  • 12 Dec: North launches a rocket, claiming to have put a satellite into orbit
  • 12 Feb: North conducts underground nuclear test
  • 11 Mar: US-South Korea annual military drills begin
  • 30 Mar: North says it is entering a "state of war" with South
  • 2 Apr: North says it is restarting Yongbyon reactor
  • 3 Apr: North blocks South workers from Kaesong industrial zone
  • 4 Apr: South deploys warships to attack possible missiles from North
  • 5 Apr: North says it cannot guarantee safety of foreign embassies
  • 8 Apr: South says North could be preparing another nuclear test

North Korean employees did not report for work at the complex on Tuesday, suspending one of the few points of co-operation between North and South Korea.

Warning to foreigners

Meanwhile, a statement attributed to Pyongyang's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee on Tuesday said: "The situation on the Korean peninsula is heading for a thermo-nuclear war.

"In the event of war, we don't want foreigners living in South Korea to get hurt."

The statement urged "all foreign organisations, companies and tourists to work out measures for evacuation".

Last Friday, Pyongyang warned it would not be able to guarantee the safety of embassy staff in the event of a war.

No foreign embassies immediately announced plans to evacuate, and the UK and Russian embassies have said they have no plans to shut their embassies.

The United States, which has also been threatened by Pyongyang, has said there were no imminent signs of threats to American citizens.

Fiery rhetoric

Tuesday's warning from Pyongyang to foreigners in South Korea came amid growing concern that the North may be about to launch a missile test.

Analysis

North Korea fired a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Japanese territory in August 1998, an event that prompted the Tokyo government's growing interest in missile defences.

Japan has a number of Aegis-radar equipped ships that can engage ballistic missiles and two land-based Patriot batteries have been deployed to protect Tokyo itself.

The hope must be that any North Korean missile test lands harmlessly in the sea but Japan is clearly ready to try to shoot down any missile if necessary.

The US also has a number of Aegis-equipped warships in the region. Their radar coverage can be enhanced by similarly-equipped south Korean vessels.

But mindful of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's warning that the current level of tension is so dangerous, that "a small incident may create an uncontrollable situation", their preference may be not to engage any North Korean missile unless it is heading for South Korea or Japan.

Japan has deployed defensive anti-missile batteries at three locations in Tokyo, to protect the capital's 30 million residents.

US-made Patriot anti-missile systems have been deployed at the defence ministry and at two other military bases.

At the end of last week Japan sent two of its most modern warships to the Sea of Japan with orders to shoot down any missiles fired by North Korea towards the Japanese islands.

BBC Tokyo correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes say no-one in Japan thinks Pyongyang is really preparing to attack.

But it may try to fire a missile over the top of Japan in to the Pacific Ocean. If it does Tokyo has made it clear it will shoot the missile down.

This is not the first time that Japan has taken such measures.

Also on Tuesday, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that North Korea has completed preparations for a mid-range missile launch from its east coast.

The United Nations imposed tough sanctions on North Korea last month following its third nuclear test.

Pyongyang has responded to this, and to joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, with escalating rhetoric. It has threatened to use nuclear weapons and said it would restart a nuclear reactor.

The North has also shut down an emergency military hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang.

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Embassy threat

On Friday, North Korea warned that it would not be able to guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats in its capital Pyongyang in the event of war. Despite this, no foreign embassies have yet closed or announced plans to withdraw.

Yongbyon nuclear complex

Yongbyon nuclear complex

North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon has long been a source of tension between the two countries and international powers, amid fears it could be used to provide material for weapons. The plant has been mothballed since 2007, but on 2 April Pyongyang said the complex would be reopened.

Kaesong joint industrial zone

North Korea relies on the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial complex as a vital source of hard currency. However on 8 April, it announced that all 50,000 workers employed there would be withdrawn, throwing the future of the site into question

P'unggye-Ri nuclear test site

North Korea has detonated three nuclear devices deep underground at P'unggye-ri since 2006, but is not thought to be able fit an effective warhead to a missile.

Mobile ballistic missiles

South Korea announced last week that the North had moved ballistic missiles with "considerable range" to its eastern coast. The North is thought to have some 1,000 missiles of various capabilities, although none are currently able to deliver a nuclear weapon.

Seoul in range

North Korean artillery drill

The South Korean capital lies within range of North Korea's formidable array of artillery. North Korea has previously threatened to turn the city into a "sea of fire" with a massive barrage. However, some analysts suggest that this threat is overstated, and while devastating, such an attack would be quickly neutralised by any South Korean / US-backed response.

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