Diplomatic and missile drama in North Korea
By Ben Brumfield and Barbara Starr, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) – As bellicose posturing and threats have grown more dramatic on the Korean Peninsula, the government in the North has told foreign diplomats it cannot guarantee their safety, if war breaks out.
The same concern apparently does not extend to foreign tourists.
On Friday, officials met with ambassadors to ask if they needed help evacuating their personnel, several diplomatic missions said.
On Saturday, Amanda Carr, who works for a British travel company, wrapped up a pleasure tour of North Korea with a group of 20 tourists. Before leaving the country, they were able to take in a rally in Pyongyang.
The UK’s embassy in North Korea gave her company, Koryo Tours, some guidance in light of the international tensions. “We’ve been advised to continue with the tours,” Carr said.
Her North Korean partners — from the state’s travel agency — continue to accept tourists, she said. And their demeanor is friendly towards them, as it always has been.
Embassies staying put
Britain’s diplomats are staying for now, according to the UK Foreign Office said. “We have no immediate plans to withdraw our embassy,” it said in a statement.
Sweden’s embassy will remain open as well. It represents the concerns of the United States in North Korea and helps its citizens traveling there.
French diplomats have also made no plans to leave.
Russia, a traditional ally of North Korea, may consider an evacuation of staff due to the tensions, according to Russian state media.
New reports of missile movements in North Korea have triggered military counteractions by South Korea and the United States.
A U.S. official told CNN that two medium-range missiles have been loaded onto mobile launchers on the East coast of North Korea, but a second U.S. official said intelligence on that is not definitive.
South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency reported the missiles were ready to launch, citing military sources in Seoul. They are likely Musudan missiles, U.S. officials said. They would have a 2,500-mile range and could threaten South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia.
It is believed a missile launch would be a “test” launch rather than a targeted strike.
In response, South Korea has sent Aegis destroyers equipped with advanced radar systems to both of its coasts, Yonhap said, citing navy sources.
The United States will deploy missile defense systems to Guam, a Western Pacific territory that is home to U.S. naval and air bases. North Korea has cited those bases when listing possible targets for missile attacks.
Missile launches are a mainstay in North Korea’s repertoire of provocations. Despite international pressure to cap its program, the communist dictatorship appears has made technical advances over the years and defiantly shows them off with new missile tests.
Threats get louder
Bellicose rhetoric from North Korea is not unusual, but tensions have risen in recent months and the warring language has reached a fevered pitch.
In December, North Korea launched a long-range rocket, which Washington and its allies took as a provocation.
In February, Pyongyang tested a nuclear charge, triggering international outrage, including from allies Russia and China. The United Nations increased sanctions against North Korea as a result.
South Korea reacted with emergency military drills, demonstrating cutting edge, pinpoint weaponry. Annual joint drills between the U.S. and South Korea followed in March.
Military exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve will run through April. At the height of bellicose threats from Pyongyang, Washington has flexed its military muscle, sending Stealth bombers to join the exercises.
Pyongyang declared the armistice that ended armed conflict between the North and South null and void and threatened nuclear strikes against the United States, something most observers say the North not capable of carrying out.
North Korea has also said it planned to restart “without delay” a reactor at its main nuclear complex that it shut down five years ago as part of a deal with the United States, China and four other nations.
Many analysts say the increasingly belligerent talk is aimed at cementing the domestic authority of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Tourists and North Koreans ‘all smiles’
Tourist guide Carr said things don’t feel particularly tense on the ground in North Korea. Civilians are not drilling for a fight, she said, but Kim’s actions are having an effect. They are getting behind him.
“People believe that their country needs to follow this path to be a strong, prosperous country,” she said.
Carr’s Friday was very relaxed. “It was a national holiday yesterday,” she said. North Koreans went strolling, skating and bowling. She and her state-appointed travel guides, who must accompany them at all times, took the tour group to a bowling alley.
Even some in uniform joined in the festivities. “There were actually soldiers used in tree planting activities,” Carr said.
Her tourists come almost exclusively from the West, and North Koreans are friendly towards them, she said. There are plenty of smiling, casual encounters.
Some of her customers cancelled the two-day trip due to the international tensions, she said.
“It is a tense time,” she admits, but it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.
The tourists who kept their travel plans had a good time.
CNN’s Ben Brumfield wrote and reported from Atlanta, CNN’s Jethro Mullen reported from Hong Kong. CNN’s Barbara Starr reported from Washington. CNN’s Kyung Lah, Judy Kwon and K.J. Kwon contributed in Seoul