South Korea raises alert with North to 'vital threat'

The BBC's Lucy Williamson reports from the Korean border

South Korea has raised its alert level to "vital threat" amid indications the North is preparing for a missile test.

At least one ballistic missile with an estimated 3,000km (2,000-mile) range is fuelled and ready for launch, US and South Korean sources say.

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

The threats follow tough new UN sanctions imposed on North Korea last month after its third nuclear test.

Separately, an initial investigation by the South into a major cyber attack last month that affected a number of banks and broadcasters has said the North is to blame.

'Any time now'

North Korea is believed to have completed preparations for a missile launch after it moved two Musudan missiles to its east coast, Yonhap news agency says.

Watchcon status

  • Level Four - Used during peacetime
  • Level Three - Important threat
  • Level Two - Vital threat
  • Level One - Used during wartime

In anticipation, the South Korea-US Combined Forces have raised their alert level to Watchcon 2, to increase surveillance monitoring, Yonhap quoted a senior military official as saying.

North Korea unveiled the Musudan missile during a military parade in 2010 but has yet to test it. There are reports, however, that it may have been sold to Iran and tested there.

The launch could happen "any time from now", South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told parliament.

A test launch would be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, which states the North "must not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile".

North Korea has tested intermediate range missiles before and during periods of crisis and tension, says the BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul.

So while another test launch would certainly be seen as provocative, it is unlikely to have any major, short-term military significance unless it goes wrong, our correspondent adds.

Musudan missile

  • The Musudan, also known as the Nodong-B or the Taepodong-X, is an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Its likely targets are Okinawa, Japan, and US bases in the Pacific
  • Range estimates differ dramatically. Israeli intelligence suggests 2,500km, while the US Missile Defense Agency estimates 3,200km; other sources put the upper limit at 4,000km
  • These differences are due in large part to the fact that the missile has never been tested publicly, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Its payload is also unknown

He says one key date for a launch could be Monday - the birthday of the North Korean state's late founder, Kim Il-sung.

Yonhap also reported that the South's National Police Agency had raised its state of alert by one level from "attention" to "caution".

It said that patrols had been increased at 770 sites, including at embassies and key underground stations.

Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said his nation was on "high alert", with anti-missile defences deployed in Tokyo as a precaution.

A number of travel agencies in China have reported that tourist trips into North Korea have been suspended.

One travel agent in the north-eastern city of Dandong told Reuters news agency: "All [tourist] travel to North Korea has been stopped from today and I've no idea when it will restart."

The border remains open to commercial traffic.

Meanwhile, an official investigation by the South into last month's cyber attack traced the malicious codes used to six computers in the North.

"We've collected a lot of evidence to determine the North's Reconnaissance General Bureau led the attack, which had been prepared for at least eight months," a spokesman for the Korea Internet and Security Agency said.

The attack on 20 March severely affected the KBS, MBC and YTN broadcasters and operations at the Shinhan, NongHyup and Jeju banks.

'Uncontrollable'

The North has warned foreigners in South Korea to take precautions in case of war.

"Looks comical but is deadly serious" - John Sudworth profiles the North Korean leadership

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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.

North Koreans failed to report for work at the Kaesong complex on Tuesday, suspending one of the few points of co-operation with South Korea.

Since the UN sanctions were imposed, Pyongyang has threatened to use nuclear weapons and has said it will restart a nuclear reactor.

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

Last week, it warned it would not be able to guarantee the safety of foreign embassy staff after 10 April, and that countries should begin evacuating their diplomatic staff.

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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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