SEOUL – South Korea raised its military watch alert to "vital threat" on Wednesday ahead of an expected North Korean missile launch, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned the Korean peninsula may be slipping out of control.
Last week, North Korea told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang they had until April 10 to consider evacuation, fuelling speculation that a launch was planned between Wednesday and the April 15 birthday celebrations for founding leader Kim Il-sung.
On Tuesday, the North reiterated a warning that the Korean peninsula was headed for "thermo-nuclear" war and advised foreigners to consider leaving South Korea.
In a further sign of the rising nuclear tensions, a key border crossing between North Korea and China has been closed to tourist groups, a Chinese official said on Wednesday.
The South Korea-US Combined Forces Command raised its "Watchcon" status from 3 to 2 reflecting indications of a "vital threat," Yonhap news agency said, citing a senior military official.
Watchcon 4 is in effect during normal peacetime, while Watchcon 3 reflects indications of an important threat. Watchcon 1 is used in wartime.
In a separate report, Yonhap quoted a government source as saying Pyongyang might be preparing "multiple" launches, after other launch vehicles were reportedly detected carrying shorter-range SCUD and Rodong missiles.
Although the North's warnings to embassies in Pyongyang and foreigners in the South were both largely shrugged off, there is growing global concern that sky-high tensions might trigger an incident that could swiftly escalate.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said during a visit to Rome that he had spoken to the Chinese leadership to try to calm tensions, and would discuss the issue with US President Barack Obama on Thursday.
"The current level of tension is very dangerous, a small incident caused by miscalculation or misjudgement may create an uncontrollable situation," Ban said.
Japan is also on full alert ahead of the expected mid-range missile, its defence minister said on Wednesday.
"We have been on full alert since we deployed military units, and so we will maintain this sense of vigilance," Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe separately said: "We are making utmost efforts to protect our people's lives and ensure their safety."
Japan, where the armed forces have been authorised to shoot down, on Tuesday stationed Patriot missiles in its capital to protect the 30 million people who live there.
In addition to PAC-3 batteries, Aegis destroyers equipped with sea-based interceptor missiles have been deployed in the Sea of Japan.