SEOUL – North Korea has taken a major step back from a planned missile test, U.S. officials said, even as Pyongyang and Seoul exchanged fresh threats Tuesday of swift military retaliation to any provocation.
A U.S. defense official said two North Korean missiles — primed for imminent launch — had been moved from their launch site, signaling an easing of North Asia tensions ahead of a U.S.-South Korea summit in Washington.
U.S. and South Korean officials had been worried that any test of the medium-range Musudan missiles would trigger a fresh surge in military tensions that have included threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang.
But the U.S. defense official said North Korea had “moved them,” adding there was no longer an imminent threat of a test.
Pyongyang, which conducted its third nuclear test in February, would have to make detectable preparations to return to a launch-ready status, two U.S. officials said.
The move was revealed in Washington on the eve of a first summit between President Barack Obama and new South Korean President Park Geun Hye at the White House on Tuesday.
Earlier, a senior White House official warned it was too early to say whether North Korea’s bellicose behavior, which prompted Washington to send B-2 bombers over South Korea, was ending.
“It’s premature to make a judgment about whether the North Korean provocation cycle is going up, down or zigzagging,” said Danny Russel, senior director for East Asia on Obama’s National Security Council. “Many analysts have anticipated that the North Korean provocation cycle would culminate in some sort of a grand fireworks display, and no one can rule that out.”
Washington is making strenuous efforts to cement Obama’s relationship with Park, who was sworn into office less than three months ago. “I would say 90 percent of the U.S. North Korea policy now is simply staying tied tightly with the South Koreans, whichever direction they want to go in,” said Victor Cha, who was former President George W. Bush’s top aide on Korea.