Seeing no imminent outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Saturday postponed a trip to Seoul as foreign diplomats in Pyongyang huddled to discuss a North Korean evacuation advisory that had sparked fears the isolated state was preparing to launch attacks on the South and the United States.
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez said Del Rosario postponed his trip to Seoul to give the foreign office time to assess the situation on the Korean Peninsula, where there are 40,000 Filipinos.
Hernandez said the DFA consulted “international partners” on the situation and learned that there were “no indications of an imminent threat” of war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula.
President Benigno Aquino III said on Friday that he was sending Del Rosario to Seoul to assess whether the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on the United States and its allies in the region was real and if it was, how bad the situation on the Korean Peninsula was.
Malacañang said on Friday that it considered the situation “alert level 1,” which required the Philippine Embassy in Seoul to get in touch with the Filipinos on the peninsula and advise them to monitor developments while carrying on with their normal activities.
Angry about tightened United Nations (UN) sanctions and joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, North Korea had threatened to launch nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies in the Pacific.
The North moved to its east coast two midrange missiles on Thursday and Friday, and mounted them on mobile launchers, sparking fears of imminent firing that would escalate tensions in the region.
On Friday, North Korea warned it could not guarantee the safety of diplomats after next Wednesday and asked embassies in Pyongyang to consider moving staff out of the country.
Part of rhetoric
The heads of European Union missions met yesterday to hammer out a common position. Most of their governments made it clear they had no plans to withdraw any personnel and some suggested the advisory was a ruse to fuel growing global anxiety over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
“We believe they have taken this step as part of their country’s rhetoric that the US poses a threat to them,” a British foreign office spokesperson said in London.
A South Korean government official agreed, saying it was part of a “propaganda war to dump responsibility for instability on the peninsula on the US.”
There were no signs that staff at embassies in Pyongyang were leaving and in the South, the rain-soaked capital, Seoul, was calm. Traffic moved normally through the city center, busy with Saturday shoppers.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a government official as saying diplomats were disregarding the suggestion they might leave the country.
“We don’t believe there’s any foreign mission about to leave Pyongyang,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying. “Most foreign governments view the North Korean message as a way of ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
China’s Xinhua news agency on Friday quoted North Korea’s foreign ministry as saying the issue was no longer whether but when a war would break out.
A South Korean government official expressed bewilderment.
“It’s hard to define what is its real intention,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “But it might have intensified these threats to strengthen the regime internally or to respond to the international community.”
The United Nations said its humanitarian workers remained active across North Korea. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, however, remained “deeply concerned” about tensions, heightened since the imposition of UN sanctions against the North for its third nuclear arms test in February.
The situation on the ground in North Korea appeared normal and calm yesterday, tourists and guides said.
“We’re glad to be back but we didn’t feel frightened when we were there,” said Tina Krabbe from Denmark, who spent five days in North Korea. “It didn’t feel like there was much tension in the city. We were OK, actually.”
A 15-year-old from Hong Kong on a school trip said: “My mum thought a war was going to break out or something like that. What we saw was all peaceful. There was absolutely no conflict… there was no unrest.”
Visitors said they had been able to to watch BBC news in their foreigner-only hotels.
Nicholas Bonner, founder of Koryo Tours, who has been organizing trips to North Korea for 20 years and visited last week, said life was “carrying on as normal.”
“It is certainly tense but people are going on with their daily work and tourism is continuing and people have been very hospitable,” Bonner told Agence France-Presse. “Everyone just hopes that it’ll blow over.”
With China’s help, it might.
Pressure on China
The New York Times reported on Friday that the administration of US President Barack Obama is pressuring China’s new President Xi Jinping to crack down on the regime in North Korea or face an increased US military presence in the region.
In a flurry of exchanges that included a recent phone call from Obama to Xi, administration officials said they have briefed the Chinese in detail about American plans to upgrade missile defenses and other steps to deter the increasingly belligerent threats made by North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.
China, which has been deeply suspicious of the American desire to reassert itself in Asia, has not protested publicly or privately, as the United States has deployed ships and warplanes to the Korean Peninsula.
That silence, American officials say, attests to both Beijing’s mounting frustration with the North and the recognition that its reflexive support for Pyongyang could strain its ties with Washington.
“The timing of this is important,” Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, said. “It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.”
While administration officials cautioned that Xi has been in office for only a few weeks and that China has a history of frustrating the United States in its dealings with North Korea, Donilon said he believed that China’s position was “evolving.”
According to the Times, in the coming weeks, the White House will send a stream of senior officials to China to press its case, starting with Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Beijing next Saturday.
Short and long runs
In the short run, the paper said, the administration wants the Chinese to be rigorous in customs inspections to interdict the flow of banned goods to North Korea.
But in the long run, it wants China to persuade Kim to cease his provocations and agree to negotiations on giving up his nuclear program, the paper said. With report from AFP
First posted 6:50 pm | Saturday, April 6th, 2013