Washington/Seoul – North Korea has moved a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast, South Korea’s defense minister said Thursday, but he added that it is not capable of hitting the U.S. and there are no signs that Pyongyang is preparing for a full-scale conflict.
The report came hours after North Korea’s military warned that it has been authorized to attack the U.S. using “smaller, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons. It was the North’s latest war cry against America in recent weeks, with the added suggestion that it had improved its nuclear technology.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin dismissed reports that the missile could be a KN-08, which is believed to be a long-range missile that if operable could hit the United States.
Kim told lawmakers at a hearing that the missile’s range is considerable but not far enough to hit the U.S. mainland. He said he did not know the reasons behind the missile movement, saying it “could be for testing or drills.”
Experts say North Korea has not demonstrated that it has missiles capable of long range or accuracy. Some suspect that long-range missiles unveiled by Pyongyang at a parade last year were actually mockups.
“From what we know of its existing inventory, North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles that could complicate a situation on the Korean Peninsula (and perhaps reach Japan), but we have not seen any evidence that it has long-range missiles that could strike the continental U.S., Guam or Hawaii,” said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Kim said the South Korean military has spotted no signs that North Korea is preparing for a full-scale conflict. Those signs include the mobilization of a number of units, including supply and rear troops, but South Korean officials have found no such preparations.
“(North Korea’s recent threats) are rhetorical threats. I believe the odds of a full-scale provocation are small,” he said. But he added that there is still the possibility of North Korea mounting a localized, small-scale provocation against South Korea. He cited the 2010 shelling of a South Korean island, an attack that killed four people, as an example of such a provocation.
Pyongyang has been railing against joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises taking place in South Korea and has expressed anger over tightened U.N. sanctions for its February nuclear test. At times it has gone beyond rhetoric. For a second day Thursday, North Korean border authorities denied entry to South Koreans who manage jointly run factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
On Tuesday, Pyongyang announced it would restart a plutonium reactor it had shut down in 2007. A U.S. research institute said Wednesday that satellite imagery shows that construction needed for the restart has already begun.
North Korea’s military statement Thursday said its troops had been authorized to counter U.S. “aggression” with “powerful practical military counteractions,” including nuclear weapons.
The Pentagon announced that it will deploy a missile defense system to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam to strengthen regional protection against a possible attack. The land-based missile defense system includes a truck-mounted launcher, tracking radar, interceptor missiles and an integrated fire control system. The Pentagon said that the system will boost defenses for American citizens in Guam, a U.S. territory, and U.S. forces stationed there. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington is doing all it can to defuse the situation, echoing comments a day earlier by Secretary of State John Kerry.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said its military is ready to deal with any provocation by North Korea. “I can say we have no problem in crisis management,” deputy ministry spokesman Wee Yong Sub said.
The foes fought on opposite sides of the Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. The divided Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war six decades later, and Washington keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea to protect its ally.
North Korea’s nuclear strike capabilities remain unclear.
Pyongyang is believed to be working toward building an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a long-range missile. Long-range rocket launches designed to send satellites into space in 2009 and 2012 were widely considered covert tests of missile technology, and North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, most recently in February.
In Seoul, a senior government official said Tuesday it wasn’t clear how advanced North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities are. But he also noted fallout from any nuclear strike on Seoul or beyond would threaten Pyongyang as well, making a strike unlikely.
North Korea maintains that it needs to build nuclear weapons to defend itself against the United States. On Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a high-level meeting of party officials who declared building the economy and “nuclear armed forces” as the nation’s two top priorities.
Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist, has estimated that North Korea has enough plutonium to make several crude nuclear bombs. Its announcement Tuesday that it would restart a plutonium reactor indicated that it intends to produce more nuclear weapons material.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has analyzed recent commercial satellite imagery of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, where the reactor was shut down in 2007 under the terms of a disarmament agreement. A cooling tower for the reactor was destroyed in 2008.
The analysis published on the institute’s website, 38 North, says that rebuilding the tower would take six months, but a March 27 photo shows building work may have started for an alternative cooling system that could take just weeks. Experts estimate it could take three months to a year to restart the plant.