(CNN) — North Korea has raised at least one missile into its upright firing position, feeding concerns that a launch is imminent, a U.S. official told CNN Thursday.
This comes as the world continued to keep watch for a possible missile launch by the secretive government, and a day before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to arrive in the region.
In the latest daily tough talk from the North, a government agency is quoted by the state-run media as saying that “war can break out any moment.”
The South Koreans — who’ve heard the cross-border bombast before — are taking the swagger in stride. Washington regards much of the North’s saber rattling as bluster.
At the same time, both countries and their allies aren’t taking any chances as the daily clamor of threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government shows no sign of letting up.
North Korea’s “actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, and the United States “is fully prepared to deal with any contingency.”
After the raising of the missile Wednesday, it was not clear to U.S. officials why the North Korean government did not proceed with the firing.
The U.S. official cautioned that the raising of the missile could have been just a trial run to ensure the equipment works or an effort to “mess” with the United States and the allies that are watching for a launch at any time.
The official declined to specify what type of intelligence led the United States to conclude the medium-range missile — a Musudan — was in a firing position.
The Musudan is an untested weapon that South Korea says has a range as far as 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles).
It could reach as far as Guam, a Western Pacific territory that is home to U.S. naval and air bases, and where the United States recently said it was placing missile defense systems.
The United States and South Korean militaries have been monitoring the movements of mobile ballistic missiles on the east coast of North Korea.
Japan has deployed defense systems, as it has done before North Korean launches in the past, in case any test-fired missile flies near its territory.
The mood in South Korea? ‘Very ordinary’
Life is generally continuing as normal in the region, despite the North’s barrage of recent threats, which have included warnings to foreigners on the peninsula about their safety in the event of conflict,
South Koreans, who have experienced decades of North Korean rage and posturing — and occasional localized attacks — have gone about their daily business without alarm.
“South Korea has been living under such threats from the past, and we are always prepared for it,” South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told CNN Wednesday. He called the current climate “a very ordinary situation.”
Tourist visits to the North appear not to have been significantly affected by the situation. China says that while some tour groups have canceled trips, the border between the two countries is still operating normally.
Foreign athletes are expected to compete in a marathon Sunday in Pyongyang, one of many sporting events organized by North Korean authorities to celebrate the 101st anniversary next week of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
“Our group just boarded a full plane for #Pyongyang,” Uri Tours, a U.S.-based travel agency that arranges trips to North Korea, tweeted late Wednesday. “Mix of tourists and marathon runners on their way to #NKorea.”
In a report that diminished the idea of a nation on the brink of war, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said this week that “the ongoing sports tournaments make the country seethe with holiday atmosphere.”
South urges dialogue over industrial zone
The difficulties at the Kaesong industrial zone, a key symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, are among the few tangible signs of the tensions.
Pyongyang repeated a threat to permanently close the industrial zone, which it jointly operates with the South, accusing South Korean President Park Geun-hye of putting the manufacturing complex at risk.
The South Korean government, meanwhile, urged Pyongyang to work to resolve the situation through dialogue.
“Pyongyang should come to the bargaining table immediately,” Ryoo said.
He added, “The North should stop actions that threaten the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region and start behaving as a responsible member of the international community.”
North Korea has pulled its more than 50,000 workers out of the complex, which is on the northern side of the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas, and blocked personnel and supply trucks from entering it from South Korea.
More than 120 South Korean companies have operations there.
In a statement reported Thursday by state-run media, the North Korean government said that what happens at the complex in the coming days “entirely depends on the attitude of the South Korean authorities.”
Since December, North Korea has put a satellite in orbit atop a long-range rocket; conducted a nuclear bomb test, its third since 2006; and claimed to be prepared for pre-emptive nuclear attacks on the United States, though most analysts believe it does not yet have that capability.
Its most recent nuclear test, in February, resulted in tougher U.N. sanctions, which infuriated Pyongyang, prompting it to sharpen its threats.
Annual military exercises in South Korea by U.S. and South Korean troops, which often upset the North, have added to the tensions, especially when the United States drew attention to shows of strength such as a practice mission by B-2 stealth bombers.
Intelligence suggests that North Korea may be planning “multiple missile launches” in the coming days beyond two Musudan mobile missiles it has placed along its east coast, Pentagon officials told CNN. The officials did not have specifics on the numbers of other missiles and launchers.
One official said the North Koreans are military “masters of deception” and may have planned all along to focus the world’s attention on the Musudans while they planned to launch other missiles. That’s a tactic they have used in the past, the official said.
A launch could take place without the standard notice to commercial aviation and maritime shipping that would warn planes and vessels to stay away from the missile’s path, a U.S. official warned earlier this week.
After a launch, U.S. satellites and radars in the region would be able to calculate the trajectory of a missile within minutes and quickly conclude whether it was on a path headed for open ocean or potentially headed for land areas such as Japan.
The United States and Japan would then have to decide whether to try to shoot the missiles down, U.S. officials say. Authorities in Guam raised the threat level Wednesday to yellow, indicating “a medium risk” for the island.
U.S. intelligence has questions
The dangers posed by North Korea came up Thursday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing about worldwide threats.
James R. Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, said the United States believes the primary objective of Kim’s bellicose rhetoric is to “consolidate and affirm his power” and to show he is “in control of North Korea.”
Clapper said that he doesn’t think Kim “has much of an endgame” other than to get recognition from the world as a nuclear power which “entitles him to negotiation, accommodation and, presumably, aid.”
In a statement for the record before the committee, Clapper reiterated that the nation’s “nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia.”
He also said the military is well-positioned “to conduct limited attacks with little or no warning,” citing the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship.
The export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and North Korea’s help to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad government in the construction of a nuclear reactor “illustrate the reach of its proliferation activities,” he said. Israeli jets destroyed the Syrian facility six years ago.
He said the United States remains “alert to the possibility” that Pyongyang could transfer nuclear technology even though it “reaffirmed its commitment not to” during talks about its nuclear program last decade.
Recent nuclear and satellite tests “demonstrate North Korea’s commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat to the United States,” he said.
There are questions about the government’s thinking, Clapper said.
“The intelligence community has long assessed that, in Pyongyang’s view, its nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy. We do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts,” he said.
“Although we assess with low confidence that the North would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or allies to preserve the Kim regime, we do not know what would constitute, from the North’s perspective, crossing that threshold.”