China North Korea border
A marker depicting the North Korean and Chinese national flags with the words "China North Korea Border" at a crossing in the Chinese border town of Tumen. Dec. 8, 2012. Photo by AP
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Amid mounting tensions with North Korea, a senior U.S. defense official said the Pentagon has delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test that was scheduled to be take place next week at an Air Force base in California

The official said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delayed the long-planned Minuteman 3 test because of concerns the launch could be misinterpreted and exacerbate the current crisis.

"This is the logical, prudent and responsible course of action to take," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said the test had been unconnected to "anything related to North Korea" and added that another test launch could be expected next month. The United States remained fully prepared to respond to any North Korean threat, the official said.

North Korea's military has warned that it was authorized to attack the U.S. using "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons.

Missile launch 'could occur'

South Korean officials say the North moved at least one missile with "considerable range" to its east coast, suggesting a launch could be imminent.

The South Korean president's office said the country had a "firm military readiness" for any eventuality. It described as "planned behaviour" the North's call for South Korean workers to leave the Kaesong joint industrial park, just inside North Korea, and for diplomats to evacuate Pyongyang by April 10.

"Ahead of that time, a situation like a North Korean missile launch could occur," Kim Haing, a spokeswoman for the presidential Blue House, quoted the chief of the National Security office as saying.

"As of now, there are no signs of all-out war, but if a local conflict breaks out, North Korea should be aware that it will pay the price."

Kim Jong Un is the third member of his dynasty to rule North Korea. He took over in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, who staged confrontations with South Korea and the United States throughout his 17-year rule.

North Korean anger over the sanctions following its nuclear weapon test has been compounded by joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began on March 1.

The North has always condemned the exercises but it has been especially vitriolic this year as the United States dispatched B-2 bombers from their home bases to stage mock runs.

North Korean television provided little evidence of tension on Sunday, with newscasts showing old footage of Kim visiting military units. Nor was there any tension in Seoul, with residents strolling in the city center on a chilly spring day.

South Korean media said on Friday the North had moved two medium-range missiles to the country's east coast, but there has been no confirmation of such a move. That prompted the White House to say that Washington would "not be surprised" if the North staged another missile test.

North Korea has not shut down a symbol of cooperation with the South, the Kaesong industrial zone. But last week, it prevented South Koreans from entering the complex and 94 returned home on Saturday, the Unification Ministry said, leaving a further 518 there.

China expresses concern at mounting tensions

After North Korea's Friday memo telling diplomats to consider leaving Pyongyang because of the tension, Chinese officials said Sunday that the country's embassy in the N. Korean capital was operating normally, and that it asked authorities there to ensure its diplomats and other citizens were kept safe.

China is reclusive North Korea's sole major diplomatic and financial backer, but its official statements have reflected an increasing impatience with the action of North Korean authorities under 30-year-old leader Kim Jong-un.

"At present, tensions on the Korean peninsula are rising unceasingly, and China expresses grave concern about this," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.

China, it said, had asked North Korea "to earnestly ensure the safety of Chinese diplomats in North Korea, in accordance with the Vienna Convention and international laws and norms".

The ministry said China's embassy was "understood" to be operating normally in Pyongyang. China would "protect the legal rights and safety of Chinese citizens and Chinese-invested organisations in North Korea". It did not elaborate.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, addressing a forum on the southern island of Hainan, appeared to refer to the tension when he said no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain."

Stability in Asia, he said, "now faces new challenges, as hot spot issues keep emerging and both traditional and non-traditional security threats exist".

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the same forum that avoiding conflict on the Korean peninsula was vital.

"There, any aggression is a threat to the interests of every country in the region," she said.

"I do welcome the growing co-operation of all regional governments to prevent conflict on the Korean peninsula and to counter North Korean aggression ... Asia must be a region of sustainable security in which habits of co-operation are the norm."