Jon Chol Jin, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea on Tuesday urged foreign companies and tourists in South Korea to evacuate, saying the two countries are on the verge of a nuclear war. The new warning appeared to be an attempt to scare foreigners into pressing their governments to pressure Washington and Seoul to act to avert a conflict.
Analysts see a direct attack on Seoul as extremely unlikely, and there are no overt signs that North Korea's army is readying for war, let alone a nuclear one.
Despite the warnings of an impending war, there was no sense of panic in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, on Tuesday.
Scores of people of all ages were armed with shovels, not guns, as they planted trees in a forestation campaign. The national flag fluttered across the city as North Korea marked the 20th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong Il's appointment as chairman of the National Defense Commission. In the evening, women donned traditional Korean dresses and danced in plazas across the country to celebrate.
The call from the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee for foreigners to leave South Korea was the latest in a series of statements aimed at ramping up anxiety abroad about tensions on the peninsula.
"The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching close to a thermonuclear war due to the evermore undisguised hostile actions of the United States and the South Korean puppet warmongers and their moves for a war against" North Korea, the committee said in a statement carried by state media.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the statement "more unhelpful rhetoric."
"It is unhelpful, it is concerning, it is provocative," he said.
North Korea has been girding for a showdown with the U.S. and South Korea, its wartime foes, for months. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula still technically at war.
In December, North Korea launched a satellite into space on a rocket that Washington and others called a cover for a long-range missile test. The North followed that with an underground nuclear test in February, a step toward mastering the technology for mounting an atomic bomb on a missile.
Tightened U.N. sanctions that followed drew the ire of North Korea, which accused Washington and Seoul of leading the campaign against it. Annual U.S.-South Korean military drills south of the border have further incensed Pyongyang, which sees them as practice for an invasion.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un enshrined the pursuit of nuclear weapons — which the North characterizes as a defense against the U.S. — as a national goal, along with improving the economy. North Korea also declared it would restart a mothballed nuclear complex.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday that he concurred with assessments calling the tension between North Korea and the West the worst since the end of the Korean War.
"The continued advancement of the North's nuclear and missile programs, its conventional force posture, and its willingness to resort to asymmetric actions as a tool of coercive diplomacy creates an environment marked by the potential for miscalculation," Locklear told the panel.
He said the U.S. military and its allies would be ready if North Korea tries to strike.
Heightening speculation about a provocation, foreign diplomats reported last week that they had been advised by North Korea to consider evacuating by Wednesday.
However, Britain and others said they had no immediate plans to withdraw from Pyongyang.
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