South Korea on Thursday said the North had deployed to its eastern shore a ballistic missile that while thought to be powerful is judged not capable of striking the United States, the New York Times reported.
In a statement to parliament, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said the missile deployment was potentially "for demonstration or for training" and that it did not look to be the newer KN-08 missile. Citing unidentified military insiders, South Korean news organizations reported the missile was the intermediate-range Musudan. Despite its claims otherwise, North Korea is widely assessed to not possess a nuclear-armed ICBM.
It is not clear if the Musudan ballistic missile has ever been tested. The missile is believed to have a range of between 1,550 and 2,485 miles. Guam, where North Korea has repeatedly threatened to attack U.S. forces, is almost 2,200 miles away.
North Korea in recent weeks has taken its brinkmanship tactics to new heights -- threatening nuclear strikes on South Korea and the United States, declaring itself no longer bound by the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement, and announcing plans to dedicate all of its atomic facilities to nuclear weapons production. Still, a majority of experts do not think Pyongyang actually plans to attack U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific.
The Wednesday announcement by the Defense Department that it would field the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system to Guam follows other moves by the U.S. military to enhance antiballistic missile capabilities in the region. Having the THAAD system in Guam will permit Aegis-equipped warships to be refielded in waters nearer to North Korea.
"We want as many [missile defense] options as possible" for responding to any threatened North Korean missile test or attack, an anonymous high-ranking Obama official told the Times.
The North Korean People's Army's General Staff continued its bellicose rhetoric on Thursday, claiming it had been authorized to hit U.S. forces with "cutting edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means."
"The moment of explosion is approaching fast," the General Staff said in a statement carried by official North Korean media. "The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation." The Stalinist state is particularly incensed by the recent practice bombing sorties that U.S. nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers carried out over South Korea.
The website 38 North, which closely tracks developments in the isolated country, on Wednesday reported that satellite photographs taken in recent weeks reveal new building work around a disabled plutonium production reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The North proclaimed earlier this week that it would restart the reactor, which had been mothballed under a 2007 denuclearization agreement with the United States.
The reactor could produce sufficient plutonium for one nuclear weapon each year, but issue specialists believe it would take months to resume operations and that any fissile material would not be ready for two to three years, the Associated Press reported.
The North's separate uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon complex, with 2,000 centrifuges, is only good for one to two weapons per year, according to Seoul National University atomic specialist Kune Suh. There are suspicions, though, that the North has secret enrichment plants in other locations.
Meanwhile, the United States is toning down its military show of force to North Korea against a background of worries that it might accidentally cause an armed escalation, Obama officials told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
The Defense Department is holding off on carrying out more previously planned armed forces maneuvers. The recent flights of B-2 and B-52 bombers over South Korea and deployment of F-22 jets took place as part of the Pacific Command's new "playbook" for deterring North Korea and bolstering South Korean confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
"The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations," an anonymous high-ranking official said.
There are also indications Pyongyang is relaxing its war readiness on the homefront, the Journal separately reported. Troops that had been ordered into special tunnels on Monday began to go back to their military quarters, according to a North Korean government source whospoke with Rimjin-gang magazine.