A top South Korean official said today he misspoke earlier in the day when he told lawmakers there is an “indication” that North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test. But that doesn’t change what Seoul has been saying for months: that Pyongyang has already prepared a tunnel for a nuclear blast and can use it whenever it wants.

When a lawmaker asked whether there was an indication of increased personnel and vehicles at the North’s nuclear test site, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said, “There is such an indication.” He said he couldn’t say more because it involved confidential intelligence.

The comments in a parliamentary session were recorded on video, but Ryoo later told lawmakers he couldn’t remember making them and didn’t mean to say them. He said he was “startled” by reports carrying his earlier comments.

A Unification Ministry official said that Ryoo had intended to say that North Korea has long been ready to conduct a nuclear test. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

After Ryoo’s initial comments, South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said there are vehicle and personnel activities at the north-eastern test site but they are seen as “usual” activities, not an “indication for a nuclear test.” Kim said North Korea can conduct a nuclear test anytime if decides to do so.

South Korea has said the North prepared two tunnels for a nuclear test, but used only one on Feb 12.

The confusion over a possible nuclear test came a day after another top South Korean official said a North Korean missile test may be in the works around Wednesday.

Either a nuclear test or a missile test would escalate tensions that have been rising for weeks on the Korean Peninsula, and would likely invite a new round of UN Security Council sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and rocket activity.

The US and South Korea have been raising their defence posture, and foreign diplomats were considering a warning from Pyongyang that their safety in North Korea could not be guaranteed beginning Wednesday.

After Ryoo’s initial comment, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged North Korea today not to carry out a new nuclear test, saying it would be a “provocative” act amid soaring tensions.

“I have repeatedly expressed my great concern about the continued inflammatory rhetoric from Pyongyang,” Ban told reporters in the Netherlands after meeting Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. “Making any threat relating to nuclear weapons is not a game.”

North Korea has unleashed a flurry of war threats and provocations over UN sanctions for its last nuclear test, and over ongoing US-South Korean military drills, which the allies say are routine but Pyongyang says is a preparation for a northward invasion.

Last week, North Korea warned nations with embassies in Pyongyang that it would not be able to guarantee the safety of their staffs as of Wednesday.

The warning prompted South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s national security director to say that Pyongyang may be planning a missile launch or another provocation around Wednesday, according to presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing.

(This article was published on April 8, 2013)
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