LONDON (AFP) - G8 foreign ministers strongly condemned North Korea over its nuclear programme on Thursday but failed to bridge divisions over Syria beyond calling for more humanitarian aid for victims of the conflict.

After a two-day meeting in London, ministers including US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Pyongyang it faced further sanctions in the event of an expected missile launch, amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula.

In a final statement, the ministers “condemned in the strongest possible terms the continued development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes” including uranium enrichment. “If the DPRK conducts another missile launch or nuclear test we have committed ourselves to take further significant measures,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters afterwards. He said this would likely include new sanctions, although these would have to be agreed at the UN Security Council and involve key North Korean ally and permanent Council member China.

The communique said North Korea was in direct violation of four UN Security Council resolutions and that its nuclear test on February 12 - its third since 2006 - and two missile launches last year “threaten international peace and security”.

Hague hailed the statement as a “firm and united and calm” response to North Korea’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric, noting Russia and Western nations were agreed on how to react. Elsewhere, the G8 ministers expressed their “deep concern” about Iran’s continued nuclear activities after negotiations between Tehran and world powers ended in deadlock at the weekend.

“Many ministers were clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open forever,” Hague said.  Whereas North Korea kept the world on edge Thursday over an expected missile launch while turning its own energies to celebrating leaders past and present amid soaring tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The United States warned North Korea it was skating a “dangerous line”, as South Korea remained on heightened alert for any missile test that could start a whole new cycle of tensions in a region already on a hair-trigger.

The North’s state media focused its attention, however, on Thursday’s first anniversary of new leader Kim Jong-Un becoming head of the ruling Worker’s Party and next Monday’s birthday celebrations for late founder Kim Il-Sung. The official party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun praised Kim Jong-Un as the “No. 1 man of conviction and will” and credited him with the success of the country’s long range-rocket launch in December and February’s nuclear test. “History has never seen any socialist leader like him,” the newspaper said.

The launch and test, along with the UN sanctions imposed for each, are at the core of the current crisis that has seen Pyongyang threaten nuclear strikes against the United States and its allies. South Korean intelligence says the North has prepared two mid-range missiles for imminent launch from its east coast, despite warnings from ally China to avoid provocative moves at a time of soaring military tensions.

In apparent reference to its missiles, North Korea said its units were on standby for a launch. “The powerful strike means of our revolutionary armed forces are on standby for launch with precise coordinates of targets input into warheads,” the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement on state media. If fired, they will turn enemy strongholds into “a sea of fire”, it said.

Although Pyongyang has not announced any launch, many observers believe it will take place during the build-up to the April 15 birthday anniversary. State media said foreign delegations had already begun arriving in Pyongyang for the event, one of the most important dates on the North’s calendar.

The missile launch may also coincide with some high-profile visits to South Korea, with both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Seoul this week.

Rasmussen held talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se on Thursday and they agreed Pyongyang should halt its bellicose rhetoric and provocative actions, Yun’s office said.

Yonhap news agency quoted military sources as saying the North was moving multiple missiles around in an apparent bid to confuse outside intelligence-gatherers about its intentions.

“North Korea... with its bellicose rhetoric, its actions, has been skating very close to a dangerous line,” US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday. “Our country is fully prepared to deal with any contingency, any action that North Korea may take or any provocation that they may instigate,” Hagel added.

 South Korea also called for negotiations with North Korea on the future of the Kaesong joint industrial zone, which Pyongyang has threatened to shut down permanently after suspending operations.

“Normalisation of the Kaesong industrial complex must be solved through dialogue,” the South’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae told reporters. “I urge North Korea to come to the dialogue table.”

Pyongyang announced the withdrawal of its 53,000 workers and the suspension of operations at Kaesong at the beginning of the week, as military tensions on the Korean peninsula soared.