British and other foreign embassies in Pyongyang still appeared to be remaining in place on Saturday evening after North Korea warned that it could not guarantee their safety.
Diplomats from the relatively small number of states which maintain missions in the country were asked to the Foreign Ministry and told that they would be given help to move out by next Wednesday because of the threat of conflict with the United States and South Korea.
The move by Kim Jong-un’s regime, which appears to have caught the international community by surprise, was being interpreted as yet another attempt to ratchet up tension and reinforce the message that it is serious about its military challenge.
The pariah state has recently issued a series of threatening statements, including a declaration this week that its military is authorised to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. South Korea deployed two warships with missile defence systems after news reports declared the North had moved a second missile to its east coast, though the South said it did not necessarily regard the North’s move as a hostile act.
The current UK ambassador, Michael Gifford, has been living in North Korea, accompanied by his wife, Patricia, for the past six months. The Foreign Office stressed that North Korea “has responsibilities under the Vienna Convention to protect diplomatic missions, and we believe they have taken this step as part of their continuing rhetoric that the US poses a threat to them.
“In recent weeks, the North Korean government has raised tensions on the Korean peninsula and the wider region through a series of public statements and other provocations. We condemn this behaviour and urge the North Korean government to work constructively with the international community, including over the presence of foreign embassies.”
North Korea’s action was not in retaliation to David Cameron declaring that its missiles pose an existential threat to the UK. The claim, which is related to domestic debate about the Trident nuclear deterrent, has been widely disparaged – there is no evidence that Pyongyang possesses such military capability.
Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, which also has an embassy in Pyongyang, that it was similarly advised to evacuate, said: “We have had this proposal for evacuation. We are in close contact with our Chinese partners as well as the Americans, the South Koreans and the Japanese.”
He said Moscow was “deeply concerned about the escalation of tension, which for now is verbal”. The Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and India, which also hold diplomatic missions in North Korea, said they were weighing the situation carefully.
China, which has supported North Korea economically as well as politically in the past, has shown increasing exasperation at aggressive rhetoric and actions by Pyongyang, calling it “regrettable”. Beijing is believed to have sent private messages to Kim Jong-un urging caution.
North Korea did, however, receive encouragement from one state – Iran. Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, the armed forces deputy chief, blamed tensions in the region on “excessive demands by the United States... and its tightening of the noose on North Korea. Independent countries do not submit to American adventurism”.
Both Iran and North Korea are under United Nations’ Security Council sanctions for their ballistic missile and nuclear programmes. A 2011 UN report said Tehran and Pyongyang were suspected of sharing ballistic missile technology.
It remains unclear just how close Seoul thinks its northern neighbour is edging towards war. The latest batch of propaganda footage sent from Pyongyang contained images of Kim Jong-un carrying out target practice with a pistol. At the same time, the South Korean army released film of reservists taking part in a “Gangnam Style” dance led by a cheerleader.
The sabre-rattling, however, has continued. North Korea is reported to have loaded the the two missile batteries on its east coast on to launchers. Seoul’s two warships have been dispatched to the east and west coast of the country.
The North Korean missiles are of the Musudan class, with a range of 4,000km, putting Japan and Guam – where the Americans have a military base – as well as South Korea, within their range.
Korean diplomacy: Embassy outposts
North Korea’s memo to the British Embassy in Pyongyang is the latest glimpse into an esoteric – extremely secretive – diplomatic relationship.
Five British staff work at the embassy, stationed in Munsu-dong, a diplomatic compound, home to a handful of expatriates. Their work includes providing English-language training and overseeing “bilateral humanitarian projects”.
Last year pictures emerged of a grinning foreigner on a roller coaster with Kim Jong-un. He was identified as Barnaby Jones, one of the embassy’s junior diplomats, prompting a nervous response from the Foreign Office, which conceded that while “unusual”, the exercise was part of a “number of humanitarian, cultural and education projects which benefit the people of North Korea”.
On Boxing Day 2010 North Korean television screened the film Bend It Like Beckham to mark the decade-long relationship between the two countries.
North Korea keeps its own British outpost at 73 Gunnersbury Avenue, an unglamorous thoroughfare better known to motorists as the North Circular Road. It is near a petrol station and curry house, and its doors, like the borders of North Korea, often remain shut.