SEOUL – South Korean and U.S. forces raised their alert status to “vital threat” Wednesday ahead of an expected North Korean missile test, with tensions wound tight during a five-day buildup to a key anniversary.
The North last week told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang they had until April 10 to consider evacuation, fueling speculation of a launch between Wednesday and April 15 birthday celebrations for late founder Kim Il Sung. It could also coincide with high-profile visits by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will both be in Seoul on Friday.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se told Parliament the launch could take place “anytime” and warned Pyongyang it risked triggering a fresh round of U.N. sanctions.
South Korean intelligence says the North has prepared two midrange missiles for imminent launch from its east coast, despite warnings from ally China to avoid provocative moves at a time of soaring military tensions.
On Tuesday, the North reiterated a warning that the peninsula was headed for “thermonuclear” war and advised foreigners to consider leaving South Korea.
The South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command raised its “Watchcon” status from 3 to 2 to reflect indications of a “vital threat,” the Yonhap news agency said, citing a top military official.
Watchcon 4 is in effect during normal peacetime, while Watchcon 3 reflects indications of an important threat. Watchcon 1 is used in wartime.
In a separate report, Yonhap quoted a government source as saying Pyongyang might be preparing “multiple” launches, after other launch vehicles were reportedly detected carrying shorter-range Scud and Rodong missiles.
The Watchcon system solely relates to surveillance levels and is separate from the Defcon system of military preparedness.
The midrange missiles mobilized by the North are reported to be untested Musudan models with an estimated range of up to 4,000 km. That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even U.S. military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.
Separately, Seoul Science Ministry official Lee Seung Won said in a televised briefing Wednesday that North Korea was the most likely culprit for a March 20 cyber-attack on South Korean banks and TV stations.