Whether North Korea has also figured out how to wed the missile with a nuclear warhead has major ramifications not just for South Korea and Japan, but for the U.S. itself, which counts those nations as its principal allies in Asia and retains 80,000 troops in the two countries.
U.S. intelligence appears to have vacillated in its assessments of North Korea’s capabilities.
In April 2005, Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea had the capability to arm a missile with a nuclear device. Pentagon officials, however, later backtracked.
According to the Congressional Research Service, a report from the same intelligence agency to Congress in August 2007 said that ‘‘North Korea has short and medium-range missiles that could be fitted with nuclear weapons, but we do not know whether it has in fact done so.’’
In an interview Friday in Germany, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. does not know whether North Korea has ‘‘weaponized’’ its nuclear capability.
Still, Washington is taking North Korea’s nuclear threats seriously.
The bellicose rhetoric follows not just the nuclear test in February, but the launch in December of a long-range North Korean rocket that could potentially hit the continental U.S.
According to South Korean officials, North Korea has moved at least one missile with ‘‘considerable range’’ to its east coast — possibly the untested Musudan missile, believed to have a range of 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers).
This past week, the U.S. said two of the Navy’s missile-defense ships were positioned closer to the Korean peninsula, and a land-based system is being deployed for the Pacific territory of Guam. The Pentagon last month announced longer-term plans to beef up its U.S.-based missile defenses.
South Korea is separated from North Korea and its huge standing army by a heavily militarized frontier, and the countries remain in an official state of war, as the Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.
Even without nuclear arms, the North positions enough artillery within range of Seoul to devastate large parts of the capital before the much-better-equipped U.S. and South Korea could fully respond.
Japan has been starkly aware of the threat since North Korea’s 1998 test of the medium-range Taepodong missile that overflew its territory.
In the latest standoff, much of the international attention has been on the North’s potential threat to the U.S., a more distant prospect than its capabilities to strike its own neighbors. Experts say the North could hit South Korea with chemical weapons, and might also be able to use a Scud missile to carry a nuclear warhead.
Darryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, acknowledges the North might be able to put a warhead on a Nodong missile, but he sees it as unlikely. He says the North’s nuclear threats are less worthy of attention than the prospects of a miscalculation leading to a conventional war.
‘‘North Korea understands that a serious attack on South Korea or other U.S. interests is going to be met with overwhelming force,’’ he said. ‘‘It would be near suicidal for the regime.’’
Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, and Robert Burns in Stuttgart, Germany, contributed to this report.