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S.Korea, U.S. remain on missile watch as North lauds Kims

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 11 Apr 2013 03:23 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* No rise in asssessment of N. Korea missile threat

* North Korea gears up for anniversaries

* North blames South Korea over closure of business zone

* Anniversary of Kim Jong-un's official rise to power (Adds Pentagon comments)

By Christine Kim and Narae Kim

SEOUL, April 10 (Reuters) - South Korea and the United States remained on high alert for any North Korean missile launch on Thursday as the hermit kingdom turned its attention to celebrating its ruling Kim dynasty and appeared to dial down rhetoric of impending war.

Despite North Korea's threats it will attack U.S. bases and the South in response to any hostile acts against it, Pyongyang started to welcome a stream of visitors for Monday's birthday celebrations of its founding father Kim Il-sung.

North Korea has stationed as many as five medium-range missiles on its east coast, according to defence assessments made by Washington and Seoul, possibly in readiness for a test launch that would demonstrate its ability to hit U.S. bases on Guam.

Officials in Seoul said there were no signs that additional steps had been taken on Thursday that would indicate the North had moved closer to a launch.

Pyongyang issued a statement that appeared to be tinged with regret over the closure of the joint Kaesong industrial zone that was shuttered when it ordered its workers out this week, terming the North-South Korean venture "the pinnacle of General Kim Jong-il's limitless love for his people and brothers".

The statement on the country's KCNA news agency blamed South Korean President Park Geun-hye for bringing the money-spinning venture to "the brink of shutting down".

Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung's son, ruled North Korea until his death in December 2011. He was succeeded by Kim Jong-un, the third of his line to preside over one of the world's poorest and most heavily militarised countries.

Since taking office, the 30-year old has staged two long- range rocket launches and a nuclear weapons test. The nuclear test in February triggered United Nations sanctions that Pyongyang has termed a hostile act and a precursor to invasion.

For over a month, Pyongyang has issued an almost daily series of threats to the United States and South Korea, most recently warning foreigners to leave the South due to an impending "thermonuclear" war.

Apart from the swipe at South Korea's new president, verbal threats appeared to fall off as KCNA listed arrivals for the upcoming birthday celebrations, naming an eclectic mix ranging from Chinese businessmen to Cold War-era enthusiasts of its socialist monarchy and official ideology of "Juche", or self-reliance.

Ramon Jimenez Lopez, listed as the chairman of the Latin American Institute of the Juche Idea, and Jie Wenjiang, who it said was in charge of Hantong International freight company in Dandong, China, were among the arrivals, KCNA said.

KEY TENET

Reinforcing the rule of the Kim dynasty and the legitimacy of the latest Kim to hold power in Pyongyang is a key tenet of North Korea's ideology.

Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said Kim Jong-un had "lifted the North Korean people out of the sea of bloody tears that has been their world in the past year" after the death of his father.

It was the first anniversary on Thursday of Kim's official ascent to power, although he became de-facto leader immediately after his father's death.

Despite the heady rhetoric from North Korea and its closure of the Kaesong economic zone that generated ${esc.dollar}2 billion a year in trade, Pyongyang does not appear to have placed its 1.2 million strong armed forces on high alert.

Most observers say Pyongyang has no intention of igniting a conflict that could bring its own destruction but warn of the risks of miscalculation on the highly-militarised Korean peninsula.

The North's rhetoric has pushed the United States, the guarantor of South Korea's security, to move more military assets into the region in response to the rising threat levels.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned on Wednesday that the North was "skating very close to a dangerous line" with its threats and provocations, and warned the United States was prepared to respond to any moves by Pyongyang.

"We have every capacity to deal with any action that North Korea would take, to protect this country and the interests of this country and our allies," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

China, the North's only major diplomatic ally, has watched the situation evolving on its doorstep with concern.

"China respects North Korea, but it also holds the responsibility of preserving peace in Northeast Asia," the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily, said in an editorial.

"Pyongyang should drop its illusions that it can make the world stay silent over its desire for nuclear arms through its hard-line stance and deceptions. We believe the North still has a chance and we regret that it has become mired in this crisis. We hope the crisis is only temporary."

Financial markets which have fluctuated with the rise in tensions appeared to have stabilised and the head of South Korea's central bank on Thursday announced that there was no imminent threat to Asia's fourth-largest economy.

"We will take appropriate action if the economy is affected by North Korea risks," Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong-soo said after it left interest rates unchanged on Thursday. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Daum Kim in SEOUL; and John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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