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North Korea Provocations

n-korea-picAfter weeks of belligerent threats and provocative gestures from Pyongyang, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is fragile.

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Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — The United States will talk to North Korea, but only if the country gets serious about negotiating the end of its nuclear weapons program, Secretary of State John Kerry said after arriving Friday in Seoul for talks with U.S. ally South Korea.

“North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power,” Kerry said.

His trip to South Korea — part of an Asian swing that also includes North Korean ally China — comes a day after a Pentagon intelligence assessment surfaced suggesting the country may have developed the ability to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at its foes.

Disclosed first by a congressman at a hearing Thursday and then confirmed to CNN by the Defense Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency assessment is the clearest acknowledgment yet by the United States about potential advances in North Korea’s nuclear program.

Despite weeks of bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang threatening nuclear attacks on the United States, South Korea and their allies, U.S. officials have characterized the North’s saber rattling as largely bluster.

U.S. officials think North Korea could test-launch a mobile ballistic missile at any time in what would be seen by the international community as a highly provocative move.

But a senior administration official said there’s no indication that those missiles have been armed with nuclear material.

Still, the defense agency said it has “moderate confidence” that North Korea could fit a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile and fire it. But agency analysts think such a missile’s reliability would be low — an apparent reference to its accuracy.

Kerry said Friday it would be inaccurate to suggest that North Korea, which has conducted three underground nuclear weapons tests since 2006, can launch a nuclear-armed missile, despite the DIA assessment.

“But obviously they have conducted a nuclear test, so there’s some kind of device, but that is very different from miniaturization and delivery and from tested delivery and other things,” he said.

He said any launch by North Korea would be a “huge mistake.”

“If Kim Jong Un decides to launch a missile, whether it’s across the Sea of Japan or in some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community, his own obligations that he has accepted, and it will be a provocative and unwanted act that will raise people’s temperature with respect to this issue,” Kerry said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, speaking with Kerry at Friday’s news conference, urged North Korea to open talks.

“We urge North Korea to cease its reckless behavior and to stop issuing threats,” he said. “Instead, we urge North Korea to respond to our call for building trust on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue, and now it is time for North Korea to make that choice.”

After South Korea, Kerry will visit China, where he will tell leaders there that Pyongyang, as one senior administration official said, is “putting China’s own interests at risk.”

Washington wants Beijing to “stop the money trail into North Korea” and to carry a strong message to the North that getting rid of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula is China’s goal, said the official and a senior State Department official.

Defense Intelligence Agency report

The surprising Defense Intelligence Agency assessment of North Korea’s potential nuclear capabilities emerged during Thursday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing.

At the hearing, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, read from a declassified version of the document in which the DIA expresses “moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however, the reliability will be low.”

As Kerry did Friday, top officials in Washington tried Thursday to downplay concerns about the report.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said that “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced” in the DIA study.

That stance was echoed by James R. Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, who said: “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the agency has no independent information to verify the DIA’s assessment.

The DIA has been wrong in the past, producing an assessment in 2002 that formed the basis for arguments that Iraq had nuclear weapons — a view later found to be incorrect.

Confusion over intel’s release

The report was “mistakenly” marked as declassified, according to an administration and a defense source. A House Armed Services Committee aide said staffers checked with the DIA to confirm that the passage was not classified before Lamborn read it.

Lamborn told CNN’s “AC360″ he acted properly in disclosing it during the hearing.

“Given the seriousness of the threat, this is something that I think people do need to know about,” he said.

On Friday, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, also backed disclosure of the assessment.

“I have to believe they know what they’re doing,” said McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I think it’s good for the American people to understand how tenuous this situation is and how important it is for us to have a strong defense.”

North Korean missile adjustments

On Thursday, North Korea briefly raised a missile into an upright firing position, stoking concerns that a launch was imminent, a U.S. official told CNN. Later, another U.S. official said it had been tucked back into its launcher.

The latest move by the North could signify that a much-feared launch is less imminent. It could also mean the government was testing the equipment.

The first U.S. official cautioned that raising the untested Musudan missile, which South Korea says has a range of up to 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers), could have been just a trial run or an effort to “mess” with the United States and its allies.

The Musudan could reach 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.

Clapper, the national intelligence director, said Thursday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing that he didn’t think Kim had “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.”

He 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.”

More threats

On Friday, North Korea issued a scathing warning to Tokyo, saying in the official KCNA news agency that Japan should “stop recklessly working for staging a comeback on Korea, depending on its American master.”

Japanese foreign minister spokesman Masaru Sato said such remarks only hurt North Korea.

“Japan would not be pushed around by rhetoric of North Korea,” he said.

North Korea began to sharpen its threats in February, after the United Nations reacted to the country’s third nuclear test with tougher sanctions. Annual military exercises involving U.S. and South Korean troops have added to the tensions.

At the Thursday House Intelligence Committee hearing, Clapper said the United States believed the primary objective of Kim’s bellicose rhetoric was to “consolidate and affirm his power.”

Earlier in the crisis, the United States drew attention to shows of strength, such as practice missions by B-2 stealth bombers.

Kerry said Friday that U.S. officials were working to calm the crisis, noting President Barack Obama had canceled some of the exercises.

“I think we have lowered our rhetoric significantly,” Kerry said.

(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.”

Provocative acts

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.”

n-koreaWASHINGTON, DC — North Korea is “skating very close to a dangerous line” after weeks of saber-rattling, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Wednesday as northeast Asia watched for an expected missile test.

“Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

He said the United States and its allies want to see North Korean rhetoric “ratcheted down,” but if that doesn’t happen, “our country is fully prepared to deal with any contingency.”

“We have every capacity to deal with any action North Korea will take to protect this country and the interests of this country and our allies,” Hagel said.

American radar and satellites are trained on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, where the communist government of Kim Jong Un is believed to have prepared mobile ballistic missiles for launch at any time, U.S. and South Korean officials warned.

Japan has deployed missile defense systems around Tokyo, some Chinese tour groups have canceled visits to North Korea and the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said Tuesday that he couldn’t recall a time of greater tension in the region since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s.

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.

The north has given ample warning to the world before previous long-range rocket launches — but it is keeping everyone guessing about what it might do this time around.

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 plan multiple launches of other missiles. That’s a tactic they have used in the past, the official said.

The United States is less troubled about the other missiles, a second Pentagon official told CNN.

“We’ve been seeing some launchers moving around. These are smaller and don’t cause us as much concerns,” that official said. “We think these movements are within seasonal norms for their exercises.”

But he didn’t discount the possibility that they might launch some of those, as they often do.

The Musudan is an untested weapon that he said has a range as far as 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). That would mean 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.

After a launch, U.S. satellites and radars in the region would be able to calculate the trajectory of missiles within minutes and quickly conclude whether they are on a test 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.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday told CNN that despite being an ally of North Korea, it stands with the United States.

“On North Korea, we have no differences with the United States. One just shouldn’t scare anyone with military maneuvers and there’s a chance things might calm down,” he said.

A launch without warning?

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at a parliamentary hearing Wednesday that “according to intelligence obtained by our side and the U.S., the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high,” the semiofficial South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

Yun said he was basing his assessment on South Korean and U.S. intelligence.

On Tuesday, a U.S. official said that the American government believes a test launch could happen at any time and without North Korea issuing a standard notice to commercial aviation and maritime shipping that would warn planes and vessels to stay away from the missile’s path.

The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information, cautioned that most of the information comes from satellite imagery, so it’s impossible to reach a definitive conclusion because the United States cannot gather information on the ground.

He said the launch could be “imminent” but also cautioned that the United States “simply doesn’t know.” Based on what the United States has seen, the belief is that the missiles have received their liquid fuel and are ready for launch.

Speaking at a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, Locklear said the U.S. military would not want to shoot down a North Korean missile whose trajectory would send it into the open sea. But he said if a missile’s path appeared to threaten a U.S. ally, such as Japan, interceptor missiles could be used to try to bring it down.

Japan poised to react ‘calmly

Japan’s deployment of missile defenses in Tokyo follows similar measures taken ahead of the North’s rocket launches last year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Tuesday that his government would do “calmly” whatever needed to be done to protect its population.

In a sign of the level of concern, however, the port city of Yokohama had to apologize for prematurely publishing a warning of a missile launch on the Twitter page of its emergency management agency. The tweet was up for about 20 minutes before being removed.

“This pre-written message was a statement delivered accidentally due to an automatic delivery malfunction,” crisis management official Tachibana Masato said. “We will work to make sure that this mechanism will be fixed and it will operate correctly in the future to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again.”

Since the U.N. Security Council voted last month to impose new sanctions on Kim’s regime over the latest North Korean nuclear test, Pyongyang has kept up a steady flow of words and acts that could give the impression of a nation heading inexorably toward conflict.

On Tuesday, it advised foreigners in South Korea to secure shelter or evacuate the country in case of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the latest in a string of ominous warnings.

It also kept more than 50,000 of its workers from an industrial complex jointly operated with South Korea, which had been a key symbol of cooperation between the two countries.

‘Holiday atmosphere’ inside North Korea

But on the same day, state media published articles that described festive events and international visits, suggesting a much less fraught situation inside North Korea.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that various sporting events were happening or scheduled to take place to mark the 101st anniversary next week of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

“The ongoing sports tournaments make the country seethe with holiday atmosphere,” KCNA said. Kim Il Sung’s birthday, known as the Day of the Sun, is a major public holiday in North Korea.

The planned events include an international marathon Sunday in Pyongyang in which runners from North Korea and other countries will participate. KCNA also noted Tuesday the arrival by plane in North Korea of a delegation from the Japan-Korea Society for Scientific and Educational Interchange.

Such visits sit strangely alongside the North’s warning last week to foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that it wouldn’t be able to guarantee their safety in the event of a conflict.

Some North Korea watchers have observed that the regime’s domestic propaganda has focused recently on efforts to promote economic development, while the bellicose threats appear targeted primarily at a foreign audience.

Varying levels of concern

The angry rhetoric has also failed to alarm South Koreans, who have lived through decades of North Korean bombast. Residents of Seoul have continued to go unflappably about their daily business.

“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 on Wednesday. He called the current climate “a very ordinary situation.”

“North Korea may launch missiles at any time, and our military is fully prepared for it,” he said.

But the North’s fiery words appear to have had an effect on the American public, with 41% of those surveyed saying they see the reclusive nation as an immediate threat to the United States, according to a recent CNN/ORC International poll.

That’s up 13 percentage points in less than a month, CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.

“If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted to get the attention of the American public, his strategy is starting to work,” Holland said.

Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, noted the varying levels of concern in an opinion article for The New York Times published Tuesday.

“The farther one is from the Korean Peninsula, the more one will find people worried about the recent developments here,” he said.

The tense situation does appear to have prompted some Chinese tour groups to call off upcoming trips to North Korea.

Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday that some agencies and tourists had canceled plans, but he said the Chinese-North Korean border continued to operate normally.

Western tourism agencies that organize visits to North Korea haven’t so far reported any changes to their activities.

A troubled industrial zone

The most tangible signs of disruption are in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the manufacturing zone on the North Korean side of the border where more than 120 South Korean companies operate.

Last week, the North started blocking South Korean personnel from crossing the border back into the complex. And this week, it said it was pulling out the more than 50,000 North Koreans who work inside the zone and temporarily suspending activities there.

It had blocked the border crossing previously, in 2009, but pulling out the workers was a new step.

As of Wednesday lunchtime, only a few hundred South Koreans remained inside the complex, according to South Korean authorities, down from more than 800 before the North started restricting entry.

Also on Wednesday, South Korea accused the North of carrying out a wave of cyberattacks that paralyzed the networks of major South Korean banks and broadcasters last month. It is the first time that Seoul has formally pointed the finger at Pyongyang for the hacking, which affected more than 48,000 computers.

(CNN) — Countries in northeast Asia remained on edge Wednesday amid warnings from U.S. and South Korean officials that North Korea could carry out a missile test at any point.

n-korea-picJapan has deployed missile defense systems around Tokyo, some Chinese tour groups have canceled visits to North Korea, and U.S. radars and satellites are trained on an area of the Korean east coast where Kim Jong Un’s regime is believed to have prepared mobile ballistic missiles for a possible test launch.

After weeks of belligerent threats and provocative gestures from Pyongyang, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is fragile.

Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, said Tuesday that he couldn’t recall a time of greater tension in the region since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s.

Before the two controversial long-range rocket launches that North Korea carried out last year, the reclusive regime gave ample warning to the world. But it is keeping everyone guessing about what it might do this time around.

“According to intelligence obtained by our side and the U.S., the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at a parliamentary hearing Wednesday, according to the semiofficial South Korean news agency Yonhap.

He said the missile in question is a Musudan, an untested weapon that he said has a range as far as 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). That would mean 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.

After any launch, U.S. satellites and radars in the region would be able to calculate the trajectory of missiles within minutes and quickly conclude whether they are on a test 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.

A launch without warning?

Yun said he was basing his assessment on South Korean and U.S. intelligence. On Tuesday, a U.S. official said that the American government believes a test launch could happen at any time and without North Korea issuing a standard notice to commercial aviation and maritime shipping that would warn planes and vessels to stay away from the missile’s path.

The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information, cautioned that most of the information comes from satellite imagery, so it’s impossible to reach a definitive conclusion because the United States cannot gather information on the ground.

He said the launch could be “imminent” but also cautioned that the United States “simply doesn’t know.” Based on what the United States has seen, the belief is that the missiles have received their liquid fuel and are ready for launch.

Speaking at a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, Locklear said the U.S. military would not want to shoot down a North Korean missile whose trajectory would send it into the open sea. But he said if the missile’s path appeared to threaten a U.S. ally, such as Japan, interceptor missiles could be used to try to bring it down.

Japan’s deployment of missile defenses in Tokyo follows similar measures taken ahead of the North’s rocket launches last year.

Since the U.N. Security Council voted last month to impose new sanctions on Kim’s regime over the latest North Korean nuclear test, Pyongyang has kept up a steady flow of words and acts that could give the impression of a nation heading inexorably toward conflict.

On Tuesday, it advised foreigners in South Korea to secure shelter or evacuate the country in case of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the latest in a string of ominous warnings.

It also kept more than 50,000 of its workers from an industrial complex jointly operated with South Korea, which had been a key symbol of cooperation between the two countries.

‘Holiday atmosphere’ inside North Korea

But on the same day, state media published articles that described festive events and international visits, suggesting a much less fraught situation inside North Korea.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that various sporting events were happening or scheduled to take place to mark the 101st anniversary next week of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

“The ongoing sports tournaments make the country seethe with holiday atmosphere,” KCNA said. Kim Il Sung’s birthday, known as the Day of the Sun, is a major public holiday in North Korea.

The planned events include an international marathon Sunday in Pyongyang in which runners from North Korea and other countries will participate. KCNA also noted Tuesday the arrival by plane in North Korea of a delegation from the Japan-Korea Society for Scientific and Educational Interchange.

Such visits sit strangely alongside the North’s warning last week to foreign diplomats in Pyongyang that it wouldn’t be able to guarantee their safety in the event of a conflict.

Some North Korea watchers have observed that the regime’s domestic propaganda has focused recently on efforts to promote economic development, while the bellicose threats appear targeted primarily at a foreign audience.

Varying levels of concern

The angry rhetoric has also failed to alarm South Koreans, who have lived through decades of North Korean bombast. Residents of Seoul have continued to go unflappably about their daily business.

“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 on Wednesday. He called the current climate “a very ordinary situation.”

“North Korea may launch missiles at any time, and our military is fully prepared for it,” he said.

But the North’s fiery words appear to have had an effect on the American public, with 41% of those surveyed saying they see the reclusive nation as an immediate threat to the United States, according to a recent CNN/ORC International poll.

That’s up 13 percentage points in less than a month, CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.

“If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted to get the attention of the American public, his strategy is starting to work,” Holland said.

Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, noted the varying levels of concern in an opinion article for The New York Times published Tuesday.

“The farther one is from the Korean Peninsula, the more one will find people worried about the recent developments here,” he said.

The tense situation does appear to have prompted some Chinese tour groups to call off upcoming trips to North Korea.

Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday that some agencies and tourists had canceled plans, but he said the Chinese-North Korean border continued to operate normally.

Western tourism agencies that organize visits to North Korea haven’t so far reported any changes to their activities.

A troubled industrial zone

The most tangible signs of disruption are in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the manufacturing zone on the North Korean side of the border where more than 120 South Korean companies operate.

Last week, the North started blocking South Korean personnel from crossing the border back into the complex. And this week, it said it was pulling out the more than 50,000 North Koreans who work inside the zone and temporarily suspending activities there.

It had blocked the border crossing previously, in 2009, but pulling out the workers was a new step.

As of Wednesday lunchtime, only a few hundred South Koreans remained inside the complex, according to South Korean authorities, down from more than 800 before the North started restricting entry.

Also on Wednesday, South Korea accused the North of carrying out a wave of cyberattacks that paralyzed the networks of major South Korean banks and broadcasters last month. It is the first time that Seoul has formally pointed the finger at Pyongyang for the hacking, which affected more than 48,000 computers.

(CNN) — North Korea issued its latest dispatch of ominous rhetoric Tuesday, telling foreigners in South Korea they should take steps to protect themselves in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

nkorea-picMeanwhile, the storm of warlike words coming from Pyongyang appears to have rattled Americans, with more than 4 in 10 saying they see the reclusive nation an immediate threat to the United States, a new CNN/ORC International poll shows.

That’s up 13 percentage points in less than a month, according to CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

“If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted to get the attention of the American public, his strategy is starting to work,” Holland said.

North Korea’s unnerving message advising foreigners to secure shelter or evacuate in case of hostilities came as Japan set up missile defenses in Tokyo, and North Korean workers failed to turn up for work in the industrial complex jointly operated by North and South Korea.

In the statement published by state-run media Tuesday, the North’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee reiterated accusations that Washington and Seoul are seeking to provoke a war with Pyongyang.

“Once a war is ignited on the peninsula, it will be an all-out war,” the committee said, adding that North Korea doesn’t want foreigners in South Korea to “fall victim” to a conflict.

It follows a warning from the North last week to diplomats in its capital city, Pyongyang, that if war were to break out, it would not be able to guarantee their safety.

But staff at the British Embassy in Seoul appeared unimpressed by the North’s most recent attempt to rattle nerves in the region.

“We are not commenting on the specifics of every piece of rhetoric from North Korea,” said Colin Gray, head of media affairs at the embassy.

“Our travel advice remains unchanged. At this moment, we see no immediate threat to British citizens in South Korea.”

Several Western countries said last week they had no plans to withdraw staff from Pyongyang after the North’s warning to diplomats there.

And foreign visitors in Seoul didn’t appear to be panicking Tuesday.

“I am concerned, but not enough not to make the trip,” said Vicky Polashock, who was visiting from Atlanta.

She said that there was more tension than she’d noticed on previous visits to South Korea, but that the North’s latest threat “doesn’t heighten the danger any more than the last couple of weeks.”

Threat after threat

North Korea has unleashed a torrent of dramatic threats against the United States and South Korea in recent weeks, including that of a possible nuclear strike.

But many analysts have cautioned that much of what Kim Jong Un’s regime is saying is bluster, noting that it is believed to still be years away from developing an operational nuclear missile.

A more likely scenario, they say, is a localized provocative move.

Amid the fiery words from Pyongyang and annual military training exercises by U.S. and South Korean forces in the region, government officials in Washington and Seoul say they are taking the North Korean threat seriously.

The North was blamed for two attacks on South Korea in 2010, one on a navy vessel and another on the island of Yeonpyeong. Those attacks killed 50 people.

Pyongyang still denies responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died.

On Tuesday, Japan said it had deployed missile defense systems around Tokyo amid expectations that the North could carry out a missile test in the coming days.

The Japanese government is making “every possible effort to protect the Japanese people and ensure their safety,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Patriot missile batteries were set up in the central Tokyo district of Ichigaya and in the suburbs of Asaka and Narashino, authorities said.

South Korean government officials have said they think North Korea could conduct the test launch of a missile as soon as Wednesday, following reports that the North had loaded as many as two medium-range missiles onto mobile launchers on its east coast.

The United States had previously said it was moving missile defense systems to Guam, a Western Pacific territory that is home to U.S. naval and air bases. North Korea has cited those bases when listing possible targets for missile attacks.

A symbol of cooperation at risk

The souring situation on the Korean Peninsula was in evidence in the failure of more than 50,000 North Korean workers to show up for work Tuesday morning at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the manufacturing zone shared by the two Koreas that had operated without such an interruption for eight years.

The North had declared Monday that it would pull out its workers and temporarily suspend activities at the complex, which sits on its side of the heavily fortified border but houses the operations of more than 120 South Korean companies.

On Tuesday, the South Korean Unification Ministry said the North Korean workers hadn’t reported for work in the district, which is the last major symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas.

Analysts had expressed skepticism that Pyongyang would follow through on previous threats to shut down the complex, noting that it is an important source of hard currency to the regime of Kim Jong Un.

The move also is likely to put pressure on the city of Kaesong itself, where the North Korean workers and their families live.

With an estimated population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people, it is one of the impoverished country’s largest cities.

South Korean officials criticized the North’s decision to halt activities at Kaesong, with President Park Geun-hye saying Tuesday that it risked damaging its credibility as a place to do business.

Since last week, the North had been blocking South Koreans from entering the zone, depriving the factories of key personnel and supplies.

The entry ban had already prompted more than 10 of the companies to cease production.

As of Tuesday, 406 South Koreans and two Chinese remained inside the industrial complex, the South Korean government said.

The North had blocked South Koreans from going into the complex before, in March 2009. But it returned the situation to normal in a matter of days and didn’t withdraw its own workers from the factories.

Anger about sanctions

North Korea stepped up its efforts to stir tensions in the region after the U.N. Security Council imposed stricter sanctions for Pyongyang’s latest underground nuclear test, which took place in February.

Shows of strength by the U.S. military during the current training exercises with South Korea have provided extra material for the North’s verbal broadsides.

The United States has since dialed back its military displays to avoid any further escalation of the crisis.

It postponed a missile test scheduled for this week in California to prevent any misreading of the situation by Pyongyang.

But North Korea is sticking to its claim that it needs its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the threat it perceives from the United States. And it is demanding to be recognized globally as a nuclear power.

Last week, Pyongyang said it would restart a nuclear reactor that it had shut down five years ago under an agreement with Washington, Seoul, Beijing and other parties.

It has also severed a key military hotline with the South, and said it was ditching the armistice agreement that stopped the Korean War in 1954.

Because that war ended in a truce and not a formal peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war.

(CNN) — Two medium-range missiles have been loaded onto mobile launchers in North Korea and are ready to be launched, South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency reported Friday, citing military sources in Seoul.

n-korea-picA U.S. official with direct knowledge of the information told CNN on Thursday that missile and launch components had been moved to the east coast of North Korea in the “last few days.”

The latest Yonhap report said the two missiles have now been hidden in an unidentified facility near the east coast.

In response, South Korea has sent Aegis destroyers equipped with advanced radar systems to both of its coasts, Yonhap said, citing navy sources.

The apparent deployment comes amid further threatening statements by North Korea and heightened tensions in the region — a situation that “does not need to get hotter,” a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Thursday.

The move of the missile and launch equipment could mean that Pyongyang, which unleashed another round of scathing rhetoric Thursday accusing the United States of pushing the region to the “brink of war,” may be planning a missile launch soon.

The components, the official said, are consistent with those of a Musudan missile, which has a 2,500-mile range, meaning it could threaten South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The United States has been looking for a hidden North Korean east coast launch site or mobile launchers, a concern because a missile launched from the east coast would go over Japan, the official said.

South Korean officials also believe the weapons on the launchers are Musudan missiles, according to Yonhap.

It is believed a missile launch would be a “test” launch rather than a targeted strike. That is because it appears the North Koreans have only moved the components so far. The United States is waiting to see whether North Korea issues a notice to its airmen and mariners to stay out of the region.

Communication intercepts in recent days also seem to show that Pyongyang might be planning to launch a mobile ballistic missile in the coming days or weeks, another U.S. official said.

Earlier, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee in Seoul that the North has moved a medium-range missile to its east coast for an imminent test firing or military drill.

The missile doesn’t appear to be aimed at the U.S. mainland, Kim said, according to Yonhap.

Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office said North Korea told British officials that it would not be able to guarantee the safety of diplomats in Pyongyang in the event of conflict.

North Korea has asked the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang to consider a possible evacuation of its staff because of the tensions on the Korean peninsula, the press officer of the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang, Denis Samsonov, told Russian state media.

“The Russian side has taken note of this suggestion. No decision has been made yet,” Samsonov said.

Wednesday, the United States announced it was sending ballistic missile defenses to Guam, a Western Pacific territory that is home to U.S. naval and air bases. North Korea has cited those bases when listing possible targets for missile attacks.

The latest developments come amid the disclosure of what one U.S. official calls an Obama administration “playbook” of pre-scripted actions and responses to the last several weeks of North Korean rhetoric and provocations.

Pentagon officials, while decrying North Korean saber-rattling, said recent announcements of U.S. military deployments in response to belligerent statements by North Korea may have contributed to the escalating tensions between the countries.

As the bombast reaches a fever pitch, the United States is refining its message toward North Korea. The Pentagon now says it is working to decrease the temperature as it maintains a frank and vigilant stance toward Pyongyang’s threats.

The latest situation on the Korean Peninsula stems from the North’s latest long-range rocket launch in December and underground nuclear test in February.

Tougher U.N. sanctions in response to those moves, combined with joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, are given by Kim Jong Un’s government as reasons to ratchet up its threats in recent weeks.

Starting Wednesday, North Korea barred South Korean workers and managers from entering the Kaesong industrial complex, an economic cooperation zone that sits on the North’s side of the border but houses operations of scores of South Korean companies.

It also repeated a threat from the weekend to completely shut down the complex, where more than 50,000 North Koreans currently work.

The current crisis at Kaesong began a day after North Korea said it planned to restart “without delay” a reactor at its main nuclear complex that it had shut down five years ago as part of a deal with the United States, China and four other nations.

Most observers say the North is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile.

It has conducted three nuclear bomb tests, in 2006, 2009 and most recently in February. It has said that its nuclear weapons are a deterrent and are no longer up for negotiation.

Many analysts say the increasingly belligerent talk is aimed at cementing the domestic authority of Kim Jong Un.

(CNN) — North Korea kept tensions simmering around its borders Thursday, reportedly moving a medium-range missile to its east coast and continuing to put pressure on a joint industrial complex where hundreds of South Koreans work.

Wednesday, the United States announced it was sending ballistic missile defenses to Guam, a Western Pacific territory that’s home to U.S. naval and air bases.

North Korea has cited those bases among possible targets for missile attacks.

This comes amid the disclosure of what one U.S. official calls an Obama administration “playbook” of pre-scripted actions and responses to the last several weeks of North Korean rhetoric and provocations.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee in Seoul that the North has moved a medium-range missile to its east coast for an imminent test firing or military drill.

The missile doesn’t appear to be aimed at the U.S. mainland, Kim said, according to the semi-official South Korean news agency Yonhap.

The movement of the missile is “of concern, certainly to the U.S. military and to Japan,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

He said he believed the missile in question was a Musudan, a weapon the North hasn’t tested before that is based on a Soviet system with a range of about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles), far enough to reach Japan but not Guam.

The U.S. military, which has a string of bases and thousands of troops in Japan, has already moved two warships and a sea-based radar platform closer to the Korean Peninsula to monitor possible missile activity, U.S. defense officials said earlier this week.

“The concerning development is if they test a Musudan and it works, then they have a new proven system that could reach anywhere in Japan,” Fitzpatrick said.

Another worry is that the missile’s test flight could pass over Japan, straining nerves in an already jittery region.

North Korea isn’t believed to have an operational missile that can reach the U.S. mainland at the moment.

The medium-range missile will probably take about two weeks to prepare, Fitzpatrick said, which means a potential launch could coincide with the April 15 anniversary of the the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of its current leader, Kim Jong Un.

Known as “the Day of the Sun,” Kim Il Sung’s birthday is a major public holiday in North Korea that is usually accompanied by large-scale parades.

A fresh burst of rhetoric

The reported missile activity Thursday followed Pyongyang’s latest salvo of ominous rhetoric, which revived the alarming but improbable threat of a nuclear attack against the United States and warned that “the moment of explosion is approaching fast.”

The fraught situation on the Korean Peninsula stems from the North’s latest long-range rocket launch in December and underground nuclear test in February.

The tougher U.N. sanctions in response to those moves, combined with joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, have prompted Kim Jong Un’s government to ratchet up its threats in recent weeks.

The United States has in turn made a show of its military strength in the annual drills taking place at the moment, flying B-2 stealth bombers capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons, Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over South Korea.

But those actions have provided fresh material for Pyongyang’s rhetorical outbursts, which have portrayed the practice flights as threats against North Korea.

“The moment of explosion is approaching fast. No one can say a war will break out in Korea or not and whether it will break out today or tomorrow,” a spokesman for the General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) said early Thursday.

“The responsibility for this grave situation entirely rests with the U.S. administration and military warmongers keen to encroach upon the DPRK’s sovereignty and bring down its dignified social system with brigandish logic,” the KPA spokesman said in a statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

DPRK is short for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.

A U.S. ‘playbook’ counters NK posturing

The Obama administration’s playbook countering Pyongyang threats and actions included an increased show of U.S. military force during its annual exercise with the South Korean military, an administration official said Thursday.

The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the plan basically details “if the adversary does this, we do this, we say this.”

He said there was a decision early on that the planned U.S.-South Korean military exercise Foal Eagle would include several highly visible events, such as the flying of B-2 bombers.

Some of the U.S. military’s recent moves — including the deployment of ballistic missile defenses closer to North Korea — were not part of the planning.

Instead, they arose from concerns about what North Korea has planned as the U.S.-South Korean exercise comes to an end, the administration official said.

Details of the playbook were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Doubts over nuclear capabilities

Most observers say the North is still years away from having the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile.

U.S. officials have said they see no unusual military movements across the Demilitarized Zone that splits the Korean Peninsula, despite weeks of bombastic rhetoric from Pyongyang.

And many analysts say the increasingly belligerent talk is aimed at cementing the domestic authority of the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un.

But the North does have plenty of conventional military firepower, including medium-range ballistic missiles that can carry high explosives for hundreds of miles.

And U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the recent North Korean threats to Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland have to be taken seriously.

“It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once,” Hagel told an audience at Washington’s National Defense University.

But Hagel also said there was still a “responsible” path for the North to take.

“I hope the North will ratchet this very dangerous rhetoric down,” Hagel said. “There is a pathway that is responsible for the North to get on a path to peace working with their neighbors. There are many, many benefits to their people that could come. But they have got to be a responsible member of the world community, and you don’t achieve that responsibility and peace and prosperity by making nuclear threats and taking very provocative actions.”

For the time being, Pyongyang is showing little interest in taking that path.

Tensions at the border

On Thursday, it barred South Korean workers and managers for a second day from entering the Kaesong industrial complex, an economic cooperation zone that sits on the North’s side of the border but houses operations of scores of South Korean companies.

It also repeated a threat from the weekend to completely shut down the complex, where more than 50,000 North Koreans currently work.

“If South Korea’s puppet government and conservative media continue to say bad things and make noise, we will take firm action and pull out all of our workers from the Kaesong industrial complex,” a spokesman for the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said, according to KCNA.

The pressure Pyongyang is putting on the companies in Kaesong is significant because the zone is considered to be an important source of hard currency for Kim’s regime.

Analysts have said they think it is unlikely the North would go as far as shuttering the complex entirely, since it would be harming itself more than the South.

More than 800 South Koreans remained inside Kaesong Thursday morning, the South Korean government said, with some staying longer than usual to compensate for those the North is preventing from entering from across the border.

Pyongyang so far isn’t stopping South Koreans from leaving the complex.

The North has blocked the crossing into Kaesong before — in March 2009, another period when joint U.S.-South Korean military drills had upset it. It returned the situation to normal after about a week.

The current crisis at Kaesong began a day after North Korea said it planned to restart “without delay” a reactor at its main nuclear complex that it had shut down five years ago as part of a deal with the United States, China and four other nations.

Threats ‘down the road’

China, a key North Korean ally, has expressed frustration with some of Pyongyang’s recent moves and has repeatedly called on all parties concerned to exercise restraint.

But the North Korean military’s statement Thursday didn’t suggest Beijing’s comments were holding much sway.

“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it said.

“The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”

Pyongyang had already threatened the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea in March.

The North has conducted three nuclear bomb tests, in 2006, 2009 and most recently in February. It has said that its nuclear weapons are a deterrent that are no longer up for negotiation.

Robert Carlin, a North Korea expert at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in California, said North Korea’s longer-range missiles may not be ready to be used for three to four years, and its nuclear program is a “low-level threat” at this point.

“We’re going to get out of this particular crisis, it seems to me, without anything really blowing up,” Carlin said. “But down the road, things are going to get more serious.”

“What we should be looking at, really, is the decisions and the policies and the approach that we’re going to have to take over the next four or five years to deal with these things,” he added. “Because for the last five years, we really didn’t do a very good job of doing that.”

(CNN) — After weeks of hurling threats at the United States and its allies, North Korea announced Tuesday it will restart a nuclear reactor it had shut more than five years ago.

The declaration demonstrates Kim Jong Un’s commitment to the country’s nuclear weapons program that the international community has tried without success to persuade it to abandon.

The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the reclusive state’s atomic energy department intends to “readjust and restart all the nuclear facilities” at its main nuclear complex, in Yongbyon.

Those facilities include a uranium enrichment facility and a reactor that was “mothballed and disabled” under an agreement reached in October 2007 during talks among North Korea, the United States and four other nations, KCNA said.

The announcement was followed by a plea for calm from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is himself South Korean. He said he was “deeply troubled.”

“The current crisis has already gone too far,” he said in a statement from Andorra. “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability.

“Things must begin to calm down, as this situation, made worse by the lack of communication, could lead down a path that nobody should want to follow.”

Ban said dialogue and negotiations are “the only way to resolve the current crisis.”

“It’s yet another escalation in this ongoing crisis,” said Ramesh Thakur, director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University in Canberra.

The tensions on the Korean Peninsula have led Pyongyang to sever a key military hotline with Seoul and declare void the 1953 armistice that stopped the Korean War.

The United States has made a show of its military strength amid annual training exercises with South Korea, flying B-2 stealth bombers capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons, Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over South Korea.

On Monday, Seoul warned that any provocative moves from North Korea would trigger a strong response “without any political considerations.”

Murky motivation

The motivation behind the North’s announcement Tuesday on the nuclear facilities was unclear, Thakur said, suggesting that it was unlikely to make a big difference militarily for the country, which is already believed to have four to 10 nuclear weapons.

The North Koreans may be hoping to use the move as a bargaining chip in any future talks, he said, or it could be an attempt by the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, to shore up support domestically.

“It’s just a very murky situation,” Thakur said. “The danger is that we can misread one another and end up with a conflict that no one wants.”

China, a key North Korean ally, expressed regret over Pyongyang’s announcement about the reactor.

“China has consistently advocated denuclearization on the peninsula and maintaining peace and stability in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday at a regular news briefing.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move would need to be dealt with in a serious manner, noting that it breached the North’s previous commitments.

A torrent of threats

The North’s latest declaration comes after a stream of verbal attacks against South Korea and the United States in recent weeks, including the threat of a nuclear strike.

Pyongyang’s angry words appear to have been fueled by recent joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea in the region, as well as tougher U.N. sanctions in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test in February.

Much of the bellicose rhetoric, analysts say, isn’t matched by the country’s military capabilities.

Still, the U.S. Navy was moving a warship and a sea-based radar platform closer to the North Korean coast in order to monitor that country’s military moves, including possible new missile launches, a Defense Department official said Monday.

The North’s announcement Tuesday follows a new strategic line “on simultaneously pushing forward economic construction and the building of the nuclear armed force.” It was announced Sunday during a meeting of a key committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea headed by Kim Jong Un.

The work of adapting and restarting the nuclear facilities “will be put into practice without delay,” KCNA said.

The measures would help solve “the acute shortage of electricity,” as well as improving the “quality and quantity” of the country’s nuclear arsenal, it said.

Yongbyon’s backstory

In June 2008, the usually secretive North Korean government made a public show of destroying the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor to demonstrate its compliance with a deal to disable its nuclear facilities.

But two months later, as its then-leader, Kim Jong Il, balked at U.S. demands for close inspections of its nuclear facilities, the North started to express second thoughts.

It said it was suspending the disabling of its nuclear facilities and considering steps to restore the facilities at Yongbyon “to their original state.”

In November 2009, it announced it was reprocessing nuclear fuel rods as part of measures to resume activities at Yongbyon. It noted success in turning the plutonium it had extracted into weapons-grade material.

n-korea-pic

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans to add 14 missile interceptors to a problem-plagued anti-missile system in Alaska aimed at North Korea, which has issued increasingly bellicose threats since it tested an underground nuclear device and launched a small satellite.

The upgraded ground-based interceptors would augment 26 interceptors already deployed at Ft. Greely, part of a multi-layered missile defense system that includes up to five Navy Aegis cruisers with tracking radars and their own interceptors in the northern Pacific. Four other anti-missile batteries are at Vandenberg Air Force Base at Lompoc.

The upgraded interceptors failed a test in December against a target resembling an incoming missile.

Officials said Friday the new interceptors will be deployed only if a second test this fall is successful. Even then, they won’t be installed until the end of 2017.

“We certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence we need,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who announced the deployment, said at a Pentagon news conference.

“But the American people should be assured that our interceptors are effective.”

The plan to boost America’s defense posture comes three days after James R. Clapper, America’s top intelligence officer, warned in a congressional hearing for the first time that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs “pose a serious threat to the United States” as well as its East Asian neighbors.

The anti-missile deployment is aimed, in part, at warning Pyongyang that America is not reducing its defenses despite cuts to the Pentagon budget. Analysts described the move as a modest step to reassure allies without adding considerably to

America’s defenses. But Pentagon officials said they are also seeking to stay ahead of North Korea’s missiles and nuclear programs, which they said had progressed more swiftly than anticipated.

“The Korean threat went just a little bit faster than we might have expected,” Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. He said the Pentagon “very simply pulled the tools off the shelf.”

U.S. officials believe North Korea is years away from developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking the continental United States. The Taepodong 2 missile theoretically has the range to hit parts of Alaska, but it has been plagued with flight problems.

Winnefeld said a new larger North Korean ballistic missile, called the KN-08, “probably does have the range to hit the United States” but he declined to say if U.S. intelligence believed it was operational.

Six KN-08s were displayed in a parade in Pyongyang last April, but U.S. intelligence agencies believe they may have been fakes.

U.S. officials also say there is no evidence North Korea has produced a nuclear warhead small enough for ballistic missiles, despite Pyongyang’s claims to have done so.

The decision to boost the number of interceptors to 44 marked a reversal for the Obama administration, which canceled additional deployments in 2009 shortly after it took office. The George W. Bush administration had proposed installing 44 interceptors.

Pentagon officials stressed that the anti-missile system was aimed at North Korea, not China, which has long had concerns that the U.S. system would degrade the deterrent effect of its small nuclear arsenal. The officials said Beijing was informed of the deployment before the public announcement.

North Korea has stepped up its rhetoric in recent weeks, including a threat to make Seoul a “sea of fire” and to carry out preemptive nuclear attacks on Washington. It has demanded that the Pentagon and South Korea cease joint military exercises that are now underway, claiming they are masking a planned invasion.

The confrontational stand dampened hopes that North Korea might follow a more moderate course under its 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, who assumed command 13 months ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

In the news conference Friday, Winnefeld used unusually direct language to refer to the new leader’s relative youth and experience.

“We believe this young lad ought to be deterred by [the U.S. anti-missile system], and if he’s not, we’ll be ready,” Winnefeld said.

Some analysts argued that the new interceptors had limited military benefit. The Arms Control Assn., a Washington policy analysis group, said they “add a very modest, mostly symbolic response to North Korean nuclear and missile saber-rattling.”

But Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the deployment added “a much-needed measure of protection against the North Korean threat.”

Hagel said the Pentagon would proceed with a plan announced last year to deploy a second missile defense radar in Japan, and would begin environmental impact studies for three alternative sites for ground-based interceptors, if needed, including two on the East Coast.

The U.S. is also putting in place a missile defense system in Europe aimed at Iran, which is also developing longer-range ballistic missiles that could eventually be capable of threatening Europe and even, in theory, the United States, though that is considered many years away.

Hagel said the U.S. was speeding up deployment of advanced interceptors in Europe, including at sites in Poland and Romania, to ensure that all European members of NATO would be covered by the system by 2018.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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