A South Korean official ramped up tensions with the North when he suggested crackpot Kim Jong-un was preparing a fresh nuclear test.
Fears grew that the rogue state was about to carry out a test on Wednesday…the same day it had warned it could not guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats in the country.
The South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae sparked fresh concerns about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions last night.
But later he backtracked and revealed he “misspoke” when he suggested there had been increased activity at the North’s main atomic test site Punggye-ri.
Despite his comments being recorded on video, the official said he could not remember making them.
His warning had come amid fears that Pyongyang could test a missile as early as Wednesday after the rogue regime today said it would recall 51,000 North Korean workers from its Kaesong complex.
It added that it would suspend operations at the factory complex which it has jointly run with South Korea, severing its last economic link with its rival as tensions escalate.
Last week, the North issued a chilling threat to British diplomats, warning them to get out of the capital, saying the safety of embassies could not be guaranteed from April 10.
Intelligence in the South had detected “increased activity of labour forces and vehicles” at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the country’s north-east, according to sources in the South.
The official said: “We are closely monitoring the on-going situation, which is very similar to the situation ahead of the third nuclear test.
“We are trying to figure out whether it is a genuine preparation for a nuclear test or just a ploy to heap more pressure on us and the US.”
South Korea defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said it was possible that the North could fire a ballistic missile and conduct a nuclear test at the same time.
The UN imposed tough sanctions on North Korea last month following its third nuclear test.
Pyongyang responded by stepping up its fiery rhetoric, threatening nuclear strikes and restarting its atomic reactor.
Seoul “is on military readiness posture,” South Korea spokeswoman Kim Haeng said.
She said: “As of now, nothing out of the ordinary has been detected.
“If limited war is to break out, North Korea should bear in mind that it will receive damages many times over.”
Meanwhile, Japan’s defence ministry said the country’s armed forces have been ordered to shoot down any North Korean missile headed towards its territory.
The North is believed to have moved at least one missile with “considerable range” to its east coast — possibly the untested Musudan missile, believed to have a range of 1,800 miles.
The US has carried out military exercises in the area with South Korea involving warships and bombers.
Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry expressed “grave concern” about escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula and asked for assurances about the safety of its diplomats.
by Mike Hansom