North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has told his military it may have to go to war but only if the South attacks first, according to a South Korea-based group that monitors the hermit state.
An earlier report by the South’s Yonhap news agency that Kim had told his troops to get ready for combat hit already nervous Seoul financial markets, with the main share index dropping more than 3%. The won also fell sharply.
However, the group of North Korean defectors’ website said the broadcast was made on May 20, before the South announced a series of measures to punish its neighbour for sinking one of its warships in March, killing 46 sailors.
“We do not hope for war but if South Korea, with the US and Japan on its back, tries to attack us, Kim Jong-il has ordered us to finish the task of unification left undone during the … [Korean] war,” it quoted the broadcast as saying.
The comments are in line with previous ones by the North that it is ready to defend itself if attacked.
Seoul on Monday announced it would ban all trade with the North over the sinking and stop its commercial ships using South Korean waters, moves likely to further squeeze the already destitute North Korean economy.
Both sides have stepped up their angry rhetoric after international investigators late last week blamed the North for torpedoing the Cheonan corvette in one of the deadliest clashes between the two since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North’s KCNA news agency quoted the Minju Joson newspaper as saying Seoul had fabricated the Cheonan incident to lay the ground for an invasion.
The United States, which has 28 000 troops on the peninsula, threw its full support behind South Korea and said it was working hard to stop the escalation fury getting out of hand.
On the other side of the Cold War border, the North keeps about one million soldiers, one of the world’s largest standing armies.
But they are poorly equipped and analysts say the North is unlikely to risk full scale combat against much better armed US and South Korean troops.
South Korea is just as reluctant to go to war, aware it would send investors fleeing from Asia’s fourth largest economy.
Analysts say the main risk is that small skirmishes along the heavily armed border could turn into broader conflict.
“The original provocation for North Korea was not strategic, but tactical, and it is hard to see this escalating in a strategic sense,” said Masao Okonogi, a Korea expert at Tokyo’s Keio University.
The South’s financial markets are already jittery over the increasingly angry war of words between the two Koreas, which have yet to sign a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.
“The Yonhap report … chilled investor sentiment as it highlighted South Korea’s geopolitical risks. And timing for such news could not be worse, as market sentiment was already shaky with renewed eurozone financial fears,” said Hwang Keum-dan, a market analyst at Samsung Securities.
“The stock market will have a hard time recovering until these two big uncertainties are somewhat resolved,” she said.
South Korea’s won also extended losses, falling 4,5% to a 10-month low against the dollar, driven down by the combined eurozone and North Korea concerns.
The authorities were seen intervening to prevent too fast a drop.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said on Monday he would take the issue to the UN Security Council, whose past sanctions are already sapping what little energy North Korea’s communist economy has left.
In what several diplomats in New York said was an unusual intervention in Security Council matters, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, expressed confidence the Council would take “appropriate” measures.
The United States, which backs Seoul, said the situation was “highly precarious” and it would take part in a joint naval exercise with the South.
China, the North’s only major ally, urged calm.
The Pentagon announced plans for a joint US-South Korean anti-submarine drill “in the near future” and said talks were under way on joint maritime interdiction exercises.
Seoul believes a North Korean submarine infiltrated its waters and fired on the Cheonan. – Reuters