South Korea backtracks on nuclear test claim as tensions continue to rise across region

A government official said that Mr Ryoo had intended to say that North Korea has long been ready to conduct a nuclear test

South Korea has today backtracked on claims by one of its ministers that a North Korean nuclear test was imminent.

Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told a parliamentary committee that "there is such an indication" of nuclear test preparations at Pyongyang's site in the country's north-east.

A few hours later the minister insisted that he had been mistaken and that there were no indications that the North was about to carry out a nuclear test.

A government official said that Mr Ryoo had intended to say that North Korea has long been ready to conduct a nuclear test.

Meanwhile North Korea announced today it was pulling out all its workers from the Kaesong industrial complex which it shares with the South.

Pyongyang said it will recall 51,000 of its workers and suspend operations at a factory complex which is the last major symbol of co-operation with its southern rival.

The Kaesong complex combines cheap North Korean labour and South Korean know-how and technology. It is the last remaining inter-Korean rapprochement projects from previous eras of co-operation.

The mistaken comment by the South Korea minister prompted a strong statement from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who called on North Korea not to carry out a new test, saying it would be a "provocative" act.

Either a nuclear test or a missile test would escalate tensions that have been rising for weeks on the Korean Peninsula, and could 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 on Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also called for calm today on the Korean peninsula and praised the United States for postponing a missile test.

Putin said during a visit to Germany on Monday that the escalating tensions worry Russia, a neighbor of North Korea.

The Pentagon has postponed a scheduled missile test to avoid raising the tensions further. Putin said at a news conference that the decision was a "very important and correct step."

He said: "We hope that this step will be noticed by our partners in North Korea and that the correct conclusions will be made, that all will calm down and begin the joint work so that the situation will become less tense."

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