North Korea was yesterday warned it faced fresh sanctions if it went ahead with a predicted missile test in the escalating nuclear stand-off with its neighbours and their Western allies.
Following talks in London of foreign ministers from the G8 industrialised nations, Foreign Secretary William Hague said they had committed themselves to “further significant measures” if the test went ahead.
“Clearly what we are talking about is in the field of sanctions. We would discuss such measures at the UN Security Council,” Mr Hague said.
In the final communique, the ministers condemned in the “strongest possible terms” Pyongyang’s continuing nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in defiance of Security Council resolutions.
They warned the regime’s “aggressive rhetoric” would only serve to deepen the country’s isolation and urged it to join “credible and authentic multilateral talks” on denuclearisation.
Following the talks at Lancaster House, US Secretary of State John Kerry headed off to the region for talks with key allies including South Korea.
In the latest ratcheting up of its rhetoric, North Korea said “powerful striking means” had been put on standby for a missile launch “and the co-ordinates of targets put into the warheads”.
Few analysts believe North Korea’s untried young dictator Kim Jong Un wants war, despite the bloodcurdling threats of recent weeks, but there are fears that a miscalculation could lead to dangerous escalation in the region.
Officials in Washington and Seoul have said the nuclear-armed regime appears to be preparing to test fire a medium range Musudan missile, thought to be capable of reaching Japan and the US territory of Guam in the Pacific.
North Korea has already cut off access to an industrial park it jointly operates with the South and warned foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that it would not be able to protect them in the event of war.
In response, South Korea has deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system, while Japan has stationed PAC-3 missile interceptors around Tokyo.
Mr Hague said the G8 ministers – comprising the US, UK, Russia, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada – did not want to further exacerbate tensions in the region.
“We are conducting ourselves in such a way as not to respond to paranoid rhetoric in a way that feeds that rhetoric,” he said.
Earlier, however, in Washington, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that Pyongyang was “skating very close to a dangerous line”.
“Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation,” he said.
Mr Hague also said the point was approaching when the E3+3 group – Britain, France and Germany plus the US, Russia and China – would have to decide whether it was worth continuing talks with Iran on its nuclear programme.
He described the failure of the latest talks in Almaty in Kazakhstan as disappointing, and warned the period after the Iranian presidential elections in June would be crucial.
“The window for diplomacy will not remain open for ever,” he said.
“I think this will become the time when in the E3+3 we really decide whether the Iranians mean it or not to pursue meaningful negotiations.
“At that time we are going to have to make up our minds about that, which means that they are going to have to make up their minds this year about whether they are purposeful about negotiations, reaching a negotiated settlement or not.”
He acknowledged, however, that the situation remained deadlocked on Syria, with Russia continuing to hold out against further action in the Security Council against the Assad regime, despite the worsening humanitarian crisis.
“This is on track to be the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century so far,” Mr Hague said.