U.N. Chief Urges N. Korea to Avoid Raising Tensions


U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday urged North Korea to avoid any actions that might escalate military tensions as South Korea's president spoke again of a "reign of terror" in the North's capital, Pyongyang.

Speaking at an Asian Leadership Conference in South Korea's capital, Seoul, Ban said the divided Korean peninsula remained one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.

"If the DPRK's activities continue, we could see more arms competition and rising tension throughout this region," Ban said, using the official acronym for North Korea.

His remarks came barely a week after the North said it had successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), defying a United Nations ban on the country testing ballistic missile technology.

A fully-developed SLBM capability would take the North Korean nuclear threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and the potential to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack.

"I encourage the DPRK to take steps necessary to prevent escalation and to enable a return to multilateral negotiations and engagement, including by complying with all relevant Security Council resolutions," Ban said.

In his address to the conference, Ban also highlighted the need to separate humanitarian policies from political issues, with specific reference to the plight of malnourished children in North Korea.

The U.N. office in North Korea has identified urgent humanitarian needs, he said, adding that the number of children suffering from stunting was "alarmingly high."

"Lives are at stake," he said. "Without aid, children will have lasting damage."

Speaking to the same conference minutes before Ban, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said North Korean belligerence was threatening stability across the Asian region.

"North Korea has been raising military tensions recently by conducting an SLBM test and has shocked the international community with its reign of terror that purged even the most senior officials," Park said.

South Korea's intelligence agency reported last week that North Korea's defense minister, Hyon Yong-Chol, had been purged and most likely executed for insubordination and dozing off during a formal military rally.

The agency said it had unverified reports that the execution had been carried out at close range with a high-caliber anti-aircraft gun.

A previous agency report said Kim had ordered the execution of 15 other senior officials so far this year.

Park made similar remarks last week about a mood of terror in Pyongyang, prompting an angry response, with the North's official KCNA news agency calling her a "viper" seeking to escalate tensions with reckless remarks. 

"Provocation and confrontation will gain nothing," Park told the Seoul conference, urging other Asian leaders to step up efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Ban will meanwhile become the first U.N. Secretary General to set foot in North Korea for more than 20 years on Thursday when he visits the Kaesong joint industrial complex just over the border.

Ban formally confirmed his visit to the zone, which is jointly operated by the two Koreas, during a press conference Tuesday at the World Education Forum being held in the South Korean port of Incheon.

The last U.N. chief to go to North Korea was Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1993. The first secretary general to travel to Pyongyang was Kurt Waldheim in 1979.

Unlike Boutros-Ghali, who met the North's then-leader Kim Il-Sung to discuss tensions over its nuclear ambitions, Ban is not expected to have any high-level talks during his brief visit to Kaesong.

Born out of the "sunshine" reconciliation policy initiated in the late 1990s by then-South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, Kaesong was established in 2004 as a rare symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.

The zone lies some 10 kilometers (six miles) over the border inside North Korea, and hosts around 120 South Korean firms which employ some 53,000 North Korean workers.

"The Kaesong project is a win-win model for both Koreas," the Yonhap news agency quoted Ban as telling the education forum press briefing.

"It symbolizes a good way to tap the advantages of the Koreas in a complementary manner," Ban said, adding that he planned to visit some of the South Korean companies and meet North Korean workers.

It will not be Ban's first visit to Kaesong. He went there with a delegation of foreign diplomats in 2006 when he was South Korea's foreign minister.

North and South Korea are currently mired in a dispute over wages at Kaesong, with Pyongyang insisting on unilaterally imposing a pay rise for its workers.

Seoul insists that any wage change must be a joint decision.

Kaesong is a key earner for the cash-strapped North. The hard-currency wages are kept by the state, which passes on a fraction -- in local currency -- to the workers.