By
Weekends With Alex Witt
updated 4/17/2013 2:18:51 PM ET 2013-04-17T18:18:51

Staff at embassies in North Korea appeared to be remaining in place on Saturday despite an appeal by authorities in Pyongyang for diplomats to consider leaving because of heightened tension after weeks of bellicose exchanges.

Staff at embassies in North Korea appeared to be remaining in place on Saturday despite an appeal by authorities in Pyongyang for diplomats to consider leaving because of heightened tension after weeks of bellicose exchanges.

North Korean authorities told diplomatic missions they could not guarantee their safety from next Wednesday–after declaring that conflict was inevitable amid joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises due to last until the end of the month.

Whatever the atmosphere in Pyongyang, the rain-soaked South Korean 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 tension on the Korean peninsula.”

North Korea has been angry since new U.N. sanctions were imposed following its third nuclear weapons test in February. Its rage has apparently been compounded by joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began on March 1.

China’s Xinhua news agency on Friday had quoted the North’s Foreign Ministry as saying the issue was no longer whether but when a war would break out.

Most countries saw the appeal to the missions as little more than strident rhetoric after weeks of threatening to launch a nuclear strike on the United States and declarations of war against the South.

But Russia said it was “seriously studying” the request.

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 U.N. sanctions against the North for its third nuclear arms test in February.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated Beijing’s calls for dialogue to resolve the tensions in a phone call with Ban.

“We oppose provocative words and actions from any party in the region and do not allow troublemaking on China’s doorstep,” a statement on the ministry’s website said, citing Wang.

The appeal to diplomats followed news reports in the South that North Korea, under its 30-year-old leader Kim Jong Un, had moved two medium-range missiles to a location on its east coast. That prompted the White House to say that Washington would “not be surprised” if the North staged another missile test.

Kim Jong Un is the third member of his dynasty to rule North Korea. He took over in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who staged confrontations with South Korea and the United States throughout his 17-year rule.

North Korea has always condemned the exercises held by U.S. forces and their South Korean allies. But its comments have been especially vitriolic this year as the United States dispatched B-2 bombers from its home bases to stage mock runs.

“MADCAP NUCLEAR WAR”

North Korea’s government daily newspaper said tension remained high because the United States was “waging madcap nuclear war maneuvers.”

“This is aimed at igniting a nuclear war against it through a pre-emptive strike,” the Minju Joson said in a commentary. “The prevailing situation proves that a new war, a nuclear war, is imminent on the peninsula.”

A television documentary broadcast on Friday quoted North Korean leader Kim as saying, during a provincial tour last month, that the country needed to “absolutely guarantee the quality of our artillery and shells to ensure a rapid pre-emptive attack on our enemies.”

But some commentators examining the outcome of meetings in Pyongyang last week–of the ruling Workers’ Party and of the rubber-stamp legislature–concluded that Kim and his leadership were more concerned with economic than military issues.

Internet site 38 North, which specializes in North Korean affairs, cited the reappointment of reformer Pak Pong Ju as prime minister, the limited titles given to top military and security officials and the naming of a woman to a senior party post.

“These personnel appointments make a great deal of sense in the context of Pyongyang’s declarations…that its economic policy will be modified by introducing systemic reforms while also continuing the development of nuclear weapons,” 38 North commentator Michael Madden wrote.

“(They) appear to be important steps in moving key economic development products and production away from the control of the military to the party and government.”

North Korea has not shut down one symbol of joint cooperation, the Kaesong industrial zone just inside its border. But last week it prevented South Koreans from entering the complex and about 100 of them who have since remained were due to return home on Saturday, leaving a further 500 there.

The barrage of North Korean threats has created jitters in South Korea’s financial markets.

Shares slid on Friday, but analysts said much of the decline was linked to the Bank of Japan’s monetary easing policies and one analyst said further major falls were unlikely.

“In a sense, for now the yen is of greater concern than the North Korea risk,” said Ko Seunghee, a market analyst at SK Securities. “There is a sense that the KOSPI (index) will not fall sharply or drop below the 1,900 level unless big news about North Korea breaks out.”

Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing

Video: Engel: Mood in South Korea ‘remarkably calm’

  1. Closed captioning of: Engel: Mood in South Korea ‘remarkably calm’

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    >>> welcome back to "weekends with alex witt ." rising tension along the border separating north and south korea amid new threats by the north. for more let's go to nbc's richard engel joining me live from seoul, south korea . richard, good evening your time. i know you've been right there on the dmz border separating north from the south. can you describe what you've been seeing and the mood there?

    >> the mood here in south korea is remarkably calm, even up in the dmz , which amazing to think about. you have the north, which has thousands of artillery pieces pointing at south korea . it has an army of 700,000 strong. it has a leadership that is talking about using nuclear weapons to destroy not only the united states , but also any adversary of north korea . yet the people here, even the troops right up on the border, are remarkably calm. at the dmz we saw tourists who are still going there. not many tourists, but some who are going up to look over into north korea , take pictures at the dividing line, this no-man's-land between the two countries. i spoke with some people today who thought that it's really just too terrible of a prospect to want to consider. that people in this country, one, have heard threats like this in the past. but, two, the idea of what a conflict really would mean for south korea is so horrible that they prefer to just ignore it and go on with their daily lives. so you're not seeing a lot of tension here in this country.

    >> something that's interesting from north korea , coming from there, telling various countries you need to start getting your diplomats out of the country, or at least have evacuation plans, because we cannot guarantee your security past this coming wednesday, april 10 . what's behind all these warnings and the status of these embassies?

    >> there is some -- well so far there are no indications that any diplomats have left. that's according to the south korea news agency today. this is -- there is some showmanship here. and the -- the north when we talk about a missile launch, i don't think people -- i hope people don't think we're talking about launching of nuclear weapons or launching of some sort of massive assault. what the perception is is that this will be a show of force, that the north might launch one, maybe two missiles, splash them in the water around guam, or japan, and get the world all riled up, and do it potentially while secretary of state kerry is in town. so launching one of these medium-range missiles over the american secretary's head certainly would get the u.s. attention. that's -- that's the assumption of the kind of thing they can do but you don't really know. and it is a country that has -- that has weapons. within this context of making all the threats, north korea said, we also want to let our foreign diplomats who are resident in pyongyang know that after the 10th, that's roughly the window when we think this test might be carried out, that we can't guarantee your safety. implying that there will be a response from the united states , or from other countries, and that pyongyang would be a victim, and that it's not responsible for what happens because the outside world , the outside aggressors, the hostile people who want to destroy north korea can't be trusted to protect even diplomatic lives. that's the line that they're taking.

    >> it is an extraordinary time. we thank you very much for the live report , richard from seoul, south korea .

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