SEOUL, South Korea — After a series of escalating threats, North Korea has moved a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast, South Korea’s defense minister said Thursday. He emphasized that the missile was not capable of reaching the United States and that there are no signs that the North is preparing for a full-scale conflict.
North Korea has been railing against U.S.-South Korean military exercises that began in March and are to continue until the end of this month. The allies have said that the exercises in South Korea are routine, but the North called them rehearsals for an invasion and said it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself.
The North has also expressed anger over tightened U.N. sanctions for its February nuclear test.
Analysts say the ominous warnings in recent weeks are probably efforts to provoke softer policies from South Korea, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the image of young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The report of the movement of the missile 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.
The reference to smaller weapons could be a claim that North Korea has improved its nuclear technology, or a bluff.
The North is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to miniaturize nuclear bombs enough to mount them on long-range missiles. Nor has it demonstrated that those missiles, if it has them at all, are accurate.
It also could be years before the country completes the laborious process of creating enough weaponized fuel to back up its nuclear threats.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said he did not know the reasons behind the North’s missile movement, and that it “could be for testing or drills.”
He dismissed reports in Japanese media 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 parliamentary committee meeting that the missile has “considerable range,” but not enough to hit the U.S. mainland.
The range he described could refer to a mobile North Korean missile known as the Musudan, believed to have a range of 1,800 miles. That would make Japan and South Korea potential targets, along with U.S. bases in both countries, but there are doubts about the missile’s accuracy.
The Pentagon announced that it will hasten the deployment of a missile-defense system to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam to strengthen regional protection against a possible attack.
Experts say North Korea has not shown that it has accurate long-range missiles.
“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,” James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, wrote in a recent analysis.
Kim, the South Korean defense minister, said that if North Korea were preparing for a full-scale conflict, there would be signs such as the mobilization of a number of units, including supply and rear troops, but South Korean military 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. He added that North Korea might mount a small-scale provocation such as its 2010 shelling of a South Korean island, an attack that killed four people.
At times, North Korea has gone beyond rhetoric.
On Tuesday, it 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.
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.
South Koreans already at the plant were being allowed to return home.
South Korea has prepared a military contingency plan should North Korea hold South Korean workers hostage in Kaesong, Defense Minister Kim said.
He would not elaborate.
Outraged over comments in the South about possible hostage-taking and a military response from Seoul, a North Korean government-run committee threatened to pull North Korean workers out of Kaesong as well.