|SKorea President Urges Talks With North|
|By JOOHEE CHO (@jooheecho) , KIRIT RADIA (@kiritradia) , LUIS MARTINEZ (@LMartinezABC) and AKIKO FUJITA (@akikofujita)||Apr 11, 2013, 7:57 AM|
In a surprise change of tone, South Korean President Park Geun-hye offered to open talks with North Korea in an effort to calm down the heated tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
"We must activate the trust process of Korean Peninsula," the president said at a dinner meeting with lawmakers of the National Assembly's committee in charge of foreign policy and unification affairs. "We will engage in talks." In the past she has maintained that no talks could take place unless the North gave up its nuclear program, which is also the U.S. line.
The president said South Korea and the U.S. have held the "same policies with one voice" in line with the spirit of "strongest allies" especially when it comes to dealing with the North.
But sources close to the presidential office in Seoul are concerned that Thursday's "olive branch" was made without consulting with the U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials on the tensions.
"Talk or no talk, the problem is that the sudden softness might come as a surprise to the secretary (Kerry) who's already on his way," said Ken Choi, a senior editor at South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper. "This could send a wrong message to North Korea, as if there's a rift between the two allies."
Kerry has just wrapped up a foreign ministers' G-8 meeting in London at which they condemned North Korea's aggressive rhetoric and the development of its nuclear missile programs, saying that Pyongyang's recent actions threaten international security.
"G-8 foreign ministers condemned in the strongest possible terms the continued development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," the ministers said in a statement.
"Even if the situation is difficult, the 'process' of trust on Korean Peninsula must continue," said the South Korea president. Earlier she also encouraged the latest medical aid shipped to North Korea by a private South Korean organization. "The humanitarian aid to North Korea will continue," she said.
Also on Thursday, South Korean Minister of Unification held a press conference encouraging North Korea to come out and talk about what they want.
"It's gone too far. We all needed an outlet that could drop the level of tensions. Good move," said Kim Yong-hyun, Professor of North Korean Studies at Dongkuk University in Seoul.
The South's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae urged Pyongyang to cool down, engage in dialogue and reverse its decision to suspend operations of a joint industrial park just north of their shared border.
"We strongly urge North Korea not to exacerbate the crisis on the Korean peninsula," Ryoo said.
Surveillance has shown that Pyongyang is ready to launch its untested mid-range Musudan missile anytime soon, putting armed forces in Seoul and Tokyo together with American troops in Northeast Asia on high alert.
South Korea's Defense Ministry confirmed Seoul has deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system.
The U.S. now has sea-based radars to track just-launched missiles. The SBX radar that looks like a large golf-ball mounted on a floating oil rig "has been deployed to the Pacific for an operational missile defense mission. It's up and running and active," a U.S. official told ABC News.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reassured citizens the government had stepped up intelligence gathering efforts, amid growing signs of a ballistic missile launch.
Kyodo News, citing an unnamed defense official, reported the missile launcher in North Korea had moved into firing position with its rockets facing upward in a "raised position." Chief Government Spokesman Yoshihide Suga refused to address the report at his daily press briefing, only saying "there are various moves."
"It is extremely regrettable that North Korea has repeated provocative acts against the international community that we can say are at unforgivable levels," Abe said, according to Kyodo.
Patriot missile batteries remained parked at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tokyo, ready to shoot down any missile that threatened Japan. Nearby at the Ichigaya train station, it was business as usual, though commuters quietly expressed unease about tensions on the Korean peninsula.
"We are amateurs. We have no idea how accurate those missiles are, so I can't help but worry," said Hyuga Tsuchiya, a high school student.
Tsuchiya added, he was concerned about Japan's ability to respond to a potential strike, saying he did not believe the country's Self Defense Forces were properly equipped, militarily.
"They are right there, on the other side of the Sea of Japan," said Setsuko Fukuhara. "Our lives seem so normal inside [Japan], but there are a lot of problems lurking close by. It's really scary."
In a sign of increasing jitters, an air traffic control center in Fukuoka erroneously sent out a nationwide alert Thursday afternoon, saying North Korea had launched a ballistic missile, according to NHK. The message prompted airports to warn pilots nearby to "be aware" of a missile, though the mistake was corrected minutes later. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, which oversees the center told NHK, there have been no reports of the false alarm affecting flights, so far.
Yesterday, a false tweet posted to the account of Yokohama's disaster management office, sent officials scrambling. The tweet, sent out to 39,000 plus followers, said "North Korea has launched a ballistic missile," and stayed up for 20 minutes before employees deleted it. Officials were forced to issue a public apology.
Inside Pyongyang, though, the mood was festive ahead of its founder Kim Il-sung's 101th birthday April 15. Its state television reported congratulatory foreign delegations arriving in Pyongyang, a twist after they warned all foreigners in both North and South Korea to evacuate because they could not guarantee safety in case of an imminent war that the United States and South Korea are to be blamed for.
Foreign diplomats stationed in Pyongyang described the situation there as "normal" despite the North Korean government ratcheting up its threats against South Korea and the United States.
Of the nearly two dozen embassies in Pyongyang contacted by ABC News, only 11 answered the phone and most of them declined to comment, citing instructions from their governments not to speak with reporters amid heightened diplomatic sensitivities.
But one diplomat described the situation in Pyongyang, on the condition that neither their name nor country be revealed, as "quite normal" and said life, such as it is in the reclusive totalitarian country, is continuing as normal.
Another diplomat, from another country, agreed, saying "everywhere is normal. Everyone is going about their business." The diplomat, who said he had been stationed in Pyongyang for "roughly two years," was cautious not to dismiss North Korea's threats as just rhetoric, but said "we are not unduly disturbed. Normally the people who should be disturbed are foreigners, but even the foreigners are not unduly disturbed," he said.
Pyongyang's main evening news also carried stories of students planting trees, a boxer defeating a Japanese player, and new commemorative post stamps for one of their most important holidays.
Only at the end of their newscast did the announcer repeatedly accuse the U.S. and South Korea of making Kaesong Industrial Complex a "base from which to initiate war." North Koreans have pulled out their laborers earlier this week from the joint North-South cooperative economic project built by South Korean investment just above the border. It was the symbol of the last remaining project between the two Koreas during the period of détente a decade ago.
"What North Korea wants is dialogue with the United States and South Korea. That's why they have been creating this hostile situation to a deadlock," said Jang Sung-min, a North Korea expert at the Korean Association of International Studies.
South Korea's Unification Ministry on Thursday made an offer to save the project, saying "Pyongyang should come to the bargaining table immediately" and the suspension is "not helpful to the future of the nation as a whole, as it seriously hurts the tenant companies and the workers."
It's unclear whether the North heard South Korea's dialogue offer before putting out another statement of bellicose threats, its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said "the enemy's land is about to turn into all sea of fire when they just push the button."
The weapons of attack are ready standing by and the missile heads are accurately focused on targets, it claimed. The committee also denounced the South's government and conservative media for guessing that they "could not ever launch an all-out war, it is simply brinksmanship to raise stakes, and inside the North, it is business as usual."
ABC News' Joanne Kim and Hunny Jeong contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed to this report.