SEOUL – North Korea’s military Tuesday threatened archrival South Korea with imminent “sledge-hammer” retaliation unless Seoul apologizes for anti-Pyongyang protestors burning effigies of its revered leaders.
South Korea called the North’s ultimatum “regrettable” and vowed a tough response to any military provocation.
The warning came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a Northeast Asian tour aimed at defusing soaring military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and getting China to help rein in a belligerent Pyongyang.
As North Korea marked the birth of late founding leader Kim Il Sung on Monday — a major national holiday — around 40 protesters in Seoul burned portraits of Kim, his son, Kim Jong Il and grandson and current leader Kim Jong Un.
Condemning what it described as a “thrice-cursed . . . monstrous criminal act,” the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) Supreme Command issued an “ultimatum” threatening “just” and immediate action if an apology is not forthcoming.
“Our retaliatory action will start without any notice,” it said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
“The military demonstration . . . will be powerful sledge-hammer blows at all hostile forces hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership,” it added.
Intelligence reports suggest the North has had two medium-range missiles primed to fire from its east coast for at least a week, with most observers predicting a launch around the date of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
During his whirlwind tour of South Korea, China and Japan, Kerry had warned that a test-launch in the current tense climate would be a “huge mistake.”
South Korea’s Defense Ministry called Tuesday’s ultimatum “regrettable” and rejected the idea of a “just” military action, saying all provocations by the North are “illegal.”
“We will retaliate thoroughly and resolutely to provocations staged for any reasons,” Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters.
Amid the angry threats contained in Tuesday’s ultimatum, some analysts noted that the demand for an apology was couched in language that might open the door to the dialogue the South has been suggesting for days.
“If the puppet authorities truly want dialogue and negotiations, they should apologize,” the KPA statement said.
“The emphasis there is placed on conditions for resuming dialogue and that is worth noting, said Kim Yong Hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Until now, Pyongyang has dismissed dialogue overtures from South Korean President Park Geun Hye and some of her ministers as a “crafty trick.”
The Korean Peninsula has been in a state of heightened military tension since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.
Incensed by fresh U.N. sanctions and joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, Pyongyang has spent weeks issuing blistering threats of missile strikes and nuclear war.
During his trip, Kerry raised the prospect of “authentic” negotiations with Pyongyang if it takes “meaningful steps” to show it will honor past commitments.
He also gave U.S. blessing to peace moves by Park, who has signalled to “listen to what North Korea thinks.”
In a further show of solidarity, it was announced Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama will hold his first White House talks with Park on May 7.
The White House said the talks — a highly visible diplomatic statement by Washington and Seoul — will highlight continuing coordination between the allies in “countering the North Korean threat.”
The missiles mobilized by the North for a possible launch are reported to be untested Musudan models with an estimated range of up to 4,000 km .
That will cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even U.S. military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.
South Korean and U.S. forces have been on a heightened state of alert for days, and Japan has deployed Patriot antimissile systems around Tokyo and promised to shoot down any missile deemed to be a threat.
Kim, the South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman, said the South will continue to monitor all military movement over the border and remain on alert until the North’s missiles are “fully withdrawn.”