North Korea appears to be sending ground-transportable missiles across its territory, one sign of stepped-up military efforts that could pose a danger to U.S. troops in Asia or Washington's partner nations, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
Some of the mobile launchers appear to be equipped with the powerful longer-range KN-08 missile, which is assessed to still be in development. The movements have led U.S. intelligence branches, the Defense Department, and the White House to reconsider the security threat the pariah nation's missile forces pose to U.S. protective measures.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said he was growing more concerned about North Korea's missile capabilities following its successful launch last month of a long-range space rocket.
"Who the hell knows that they're going to do from day to day," Panetta said in remarks to deployed U.S. forces. "And right now, you know, North Korea just fired a missile. It's an intercontinental ballistic missile, for God sakes. That means they have the capability to strike the United States."
Defense officials subsequently clarified that Panetta was not suggesting the mainland United States is now within targeting range of the North's high-altitude missiles. Separate government studies have found that Hawaii is within striking distance.
An anonymous Obama official said an in-depth analysis of the North's December rocket launch concluded it was "largely a success, if you define success as showing that they could drop a warhead a lot of places in Asia."
In early 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pyongyang was within half-a-decade of having a missile that could hit the U.S. mainland.
The KN-08 missile is understood to be capable of hitting targets in Japan, South Korea and some areas of Southeast Asia. There are no indications the experimental weapon has been equipped with atomic warheads or that the North has even developed the ability to make nuclear bombs small enough to be fitted to ballistic missiles.
Some intelligence officers suspect the focus of the Stalinist state's next nuclear trial blast would be aimed at demonstrating a capacity to miniaturize nuclear warheads.
Meanwhile, "significant progress" has been made in talks among U.N. Security Council members on reaching agreement on penalizing North Korea for its rocket launch, which was a clear violation of council rules on the use of ballistic missile technology, a number of unidentified diplomatic insiders told the Yonhap News Agency on Thursday.
It is still not clear, however, when a Security Council response will be announced, a Washington-based source said.