By Sangwon Yoon
SEOUL — North Korea called the closing of an industrial park jointly run with South Korea temporary, signaling a possible moderation in tone as the region remained on alert for a missile launch by the totalitarian state.
While blaming the South for this week's suspension of operations at the Kaesong complex north of the border, the move is "temporary," the official Korean Central News Agency said, citing an unidentified government spokesman. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae called for dialogue between the two sides to resolve the issue.
North Korea has repeatedly said the region is on the brink of war since its February nuclear test prompted tighter United Nations sanctions and the United States and South Korea began joint drills last month. With both American and South Korean officials saying a missile test may be imminent, Kim Jong Un's regime may be trying to moderate tensions, analyst Kim Yong Hyun said.
"The KCNA statement can be read as a sign of the North trying to, at least for now, keep the current situation from getting any worse," said Kim, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. "Any firing of a North Korean missile is aimed at influencing the U.S. and the international community psychologically."
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday said North Korea has "been skating very close to a dangerous line" and should tone down its "bellicose rhetoric."
A North Korean organization today reiterated that the country is on a war footing and is ready to attack, and that its warheads are already programmed with target coordinates.
"Just pressing the button will be enough to turn the strongholds of the enemies into the sea of fire," the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by KCNA.
South Korean shares and the won gained for the third day, as the Bank of Korea froze its key interest rate at 2.75 percent for a sixth month. The benchmark Kospi index rose 0.7 percent to close at 1,949.80 in Seoul, while the won strengthened by 0.6 percent to 1,129.25 versus the dollar.
President Park Geun-hye Thursday met with a group of foreign investors in Seoul and pledged to create a "stable environment," according to a statement from her office. The meeting came two days after North Korea warned foreigners in the South to prepare for evacuation in case of a war.
The possibility of a North Korean missile test is "very high" and "may materialize anytime from now," South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Wednesday. South Korean and U.S. forces upgraded their joint surveillance "Watchcon" status by one level to monitor for an imminent missile firing, Yonhap reported, citing unnamed military officials.
North Korea may fire a missile anytime until around April 15, the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il Sung's birth, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said today.
Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, is the grandfather of the current leader. Last April 13, North Korea fired a long range rocket that disintegrated shortly after liftoff, then successfully launched another in December.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress on April 9 that North Korea moved at least one medium-range Musudan missile to its eastern coast. Japanese intelligence satellite imagery shows the missile launchpad has been put in a raised position, Kyodo News reported Thursday, citing an unidentified Defense Ministry official.
Japan, which has deployed its missile interceptors, is taking all precautions for potential North Korean action, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo, declining to comment on the Kyodo report.
The Musudan has a range of 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) to 3,500 miles — which is a potential threat to Guam though not to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland, Locklear said.
More than 53,300 North Korean laborers failed to show up at Kaesong for a third day, halting operations there for 123 South Korean companies, the Unification Ministry said. Thirty-five South Koreans left the complex Thursday, leaving behind 261, the ministry said in a text message.