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.
In early March, the regime announced it would conduct a test of a more powerful missile, depending on the size of U.S. and South Korea military maneuvers, which have included amphibious assault exercises.
Reference to a diversified nuclear force was used in 2013 after the regime conducted its third underground nuclear test by saying it has mastered the design of a small nuclear warhead to be delivered atop a long-range missile.
Reference to "striking forces" also was used in the past to indicate readiness for long-range missile tests for the North's Strategic Rocket Forces, a new military branch created as part of efforts to convince the world that Pyongyang has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
North Korea is suspected of purchasing small nuclear warhead design information from the Pakistani nuclear supplier group headed by A.Q. Khan. The plans originally were obtained from China and sold to Libya, and probably to Iran and North Korea.
Chinese-language documents on small warhead design were discovered in Libya in 2003 after Tripoli gave up its weapons programs.
U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned there will be no warning of a long-range missile test, as occurred with the two recent Nodong flight tests.
Surprise tests are designed to prevent the Pentagon from activating its long-range missile defense system, based in Asia, with interceptors in Alaska and Hawaii. Those systems are ready for any long-range test, a U.S. official said.
North Korea last year produced propaganda videos showing simulated nuclear missile attacks on New York.
Since Feb. 21, the North has fired about 600 missiles, rockets and artillery shells in a show of disdain for U.S.-South Korea military exercises known as Foal Eagle.
On the possibility of a nuclear test, U.S. officials noted that North Korean statements were equivocal on whether a fourth underground test blast is planned. Before the three earlier nuclear tests, official statements said definitively a nuclear test would be coming.
A call to arms, delayed
Ukraine has requested U.S. military assistance as about 50,000 Russian troops and armored forces continue massing on its eastern border.
But the Obama administration has balked at providing Kiev with the aid, and is declining to say what types of weapons and equipment it is considering, presumably to avoid upsetting Russia.
"Ukraine requested a range of equipment and we're not giving exact details," Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steven Warren told Inside the Ring. "The majority of the request was for service support equipment such as medical supplies, uniform items and the like."
Col. Warren said the Pentagon is working with the State Department in reviewing the arms request, "but it's safe to say that right now, the focus of that review is on non-lethal equipment."
Col. Warren said the administration's current policy is to use non-military economic and diplomatic means to reduce current military tensions.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Friday urged the administration to fulfill Ukraine's arms request, including small arms, ammunition, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as protective gear and spare parts. They also want the Pentagon to share intelligence with Kiev's forces.
A former Pentagon official currently in Ukraine said there are few signs that Russian military forces near Ukraine's eastern border have withdrawn.
"We saw this in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Soviet forces would mass and stage, conduct exercises and then pull back, only to invade later on," the former official said. "The Russians have moved some forces back 30 or 40 kilometers, but that is still an hour's drive from the Ukrainian border."
Moscow warns JPMorgan
Russia threatened unspecified retaliation this week against financial giant JPMorgan Chase, along with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates in Russia. The threat followed the bank's blocking of a Russian government funds transfer to comply with recent financial sanctions over Moscow's military incursion into Crimea.
"We view as absolutely unacceptable, illegal and absurd the decision of the bank JPMorgan Chase to block a transfer [of funds] from the Russian embassy in Astana, [Kazakhstan] to the insurance company OAO [Open Joint Stock Company] SOGAZ under the pretext of the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the U.S.A. in response to Crimea's reunification with Russia," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashev.
The spokesman also said that if the U.S. financial company was seeking to "earn points with the White House, it clearly overplayed its hand."
"Washington must understand: Any hostile actions against the Russian diplomatic mission not only constitute a flagrant violation of international law but are also fraught with retaliatory measures that will inevitably affect the work of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. consulate general offices in Russia," Mr. Lukashev said.
No details of the transaction were disclosed, but it was most likely an attempt to circumvent sanctions imposed on Bank Rossiya by the Treasury Department.
On March 20, Treasury slapped sanctions on Bank Rossiya and its director, along with 16 Russian officials said to be cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sanctions froze the officials' assets and prohibit any U.S. financial entities from doing business with Bank Rossiya.
"Russia has already started to bear the economic costs of its unlawful effort to undermine Ukraine's security, stability, and sovereignty," David S. Cohen, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in announcing the sanctions. "We will continue to impose costs in direct response to Russia's provocative acts."
JP Morgan Russia spokeswoman Natalia Schetinina said: "Following consultation with our regulators, we are processing this transaction."
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.