North Korea has moved a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast, South Korea’s Defense Minister said on Thursday, but added that 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 authorised 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, adding that it had improved its nuclear technology.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin dismissed reports in Japanese media that the missile could be a KN-08, which is believed to be a long-range missile, and 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, which has a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles). That would make Japan and South Korea potential targets, but little is known about the missile’s accuracy.
The defense minister 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 its missiles capability of long range or accuracy. Some suspect that long-range missiles unveiled by Pyongyang at a parade last year were actually mock-ups.
“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 U.S., Guam or Hawaii,” James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, wrote in a recent analysis.
Kim said that if North Korea were preparing for a full-scale conflict, there would be signs including mobilisation 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. But he added that there is still the possibility of North Korea mounting a localised, small-scale provocation against South Korea. He cited the 2010 shelling of a South Korean Island, an attack that killed four people, as a possible 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. Many of the threats came in the middle of the night in Asia daytime for the U.S. audience.
Analysts said the threats 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.
At times Pyongyang has gone beyond rhetoric. For a second day on Thursday, North Korean border authorities denied entry to South Koreans who manage jointly run factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong. A North Korean government-run committee threatened to pull out North Korean workers from Kaesong as well.
North Korea’s military statement on Thursday said its troops had been authorised to counter U.S. “aggression” with “powerful practical military counteractions,” including nuclear weapons.