- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching North Korea for signs that Pyongyang’s next military provocation will be a long-range missile flight test.

Recent pronouncements from the North indicate the regime has decided to conduct a long-range flight test, the timing of which is unknown, said U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports.

Additionally, current assessments show that the North is more likely to conduct a missile flight test than a fourth underground nuclear test.

The most recent indication of a coming missile test is North Korea’s imposition of a “no-sail” zone in waters near Wonsan, on the southeastern coast. That location is where North Korea recently fired two medium-range Nodong missiles and large numbers of short-range missiles and artillery rockets in a saber-rattling display to protest joint U.S.-South Korean war games.

Systems likely to be tested include the Taepodong-2, which has been tested five times since 2006 and most recently in December 2012, and a new road-mobile KN-08 missile that has not been flight-tested. A third possible system in the longer-range category is the Musudan intermediate-range missile that can reach all U.S. bases in the region, including Guam.

North Korea revealed recently that it has deployed at least six KN-08s. The missiles were spotted by imagery satellites at several locations over the past two years, including near Wonsan. They are deployed on Chinese-made mobile launchers that were illegally exported by Beijing several years ago in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Analysis of the North’s March 30 statement rejecting international condemnation of earlier missile tests indicates a long-range missile firing is coming.

The Foreign Ministry statement said North Korean forces will carry out an exercise involving “striking forces.” The next test also will be “utilizing [its] more diversified nuclear deterrent” against different “medium- or long-range targets.”

The statement then threatened to carry out an unspecified “new type of nuclear test” if the U.S. criticizes a missile launch as a provocation.

Tensions remain high on the peninsula after an exchange of artillery by North and South forces this week.

Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said the North’s long-range missiles are dangerous and can be used despite their limited development.

“The KN-08 is their developmental intercontinental ballistic missile,” he told the House Committee on Armed Services Wednesday. “They have not tested it. They’ve displayed it. We believe that they have the technical capabilities and the skill to produce an ICBM. They claim that they have done so. And so, because of that, I think it is dangerous and we have to assume that they can employ one.”

Gen. Scaparrotti said North Korea’s hostile rhetoric has ratcheted up in the past two or three days.

U.S. officials’ main concern is that a major military provocation by the North will trigger a military response by the South. Seoul has said it will not stand by as it did in 2010 after North Korea sank a South Korean warship and fired artillery shells at a border island months later.

One official said the North’s use of terms like “striking forces” and reference to medium- and long-range targets as part of a diversified nuclear deterrent indicate that a long-range missile test is planned.

Story Continues →