North Korea has taken a major step back from a planned missile test, US officials said, even as Pyongyang and Seoul yesterday exchanged fresh threats of swift military retaliation to any provocation.
A US defense official said two North Korean missiles — primed for imminent test-firing — had been moved from their launch site, signaling a possible easing of North Asia tensions ahead of a US-South Korea summit in Washington.
US and South Korean officials had been worried that any test of the medium-range Musudan missiles would trigger a fresh surge in tensions that have included threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang.
However, the US defense official said on condition of anonymity: “They moved them,” adding that there was no longer an imminent threat of a test.
Pyongyang, which rattled the world with its third nuclear test in February, would have to make detectable preparations to return to a launch-ready status, two US officials said.
The move was revealed in Washington on the eve of a first summit between US President Barack Obama and new South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the White House yesterday, intended as a strong signal of unity to Pyongyang.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the brink of boiling over for months, with the North issuing a series of apocalyptic threats over what it sees as intensely provocative US-South Korean military exercises.
Although large-scale, annual joint drills were wrapped up at the end of last month, Pyongyang issued a fresh warning yesterday over a smaller, joint anti-submarine exercise.
North Korean troops near the disputed Yellow Sea border with the South have been ordered to strike back if “even a single shell drops” in their territorial waters, the North’s army command said in a statement.
Any subsequent counterstrike would trigger an escalated military reaction that would see South Korea’s border islands engulfed in a “sea of flames,” the statement added.
North Korea shelled one of the islands, Yeonpyeong, in November 2010, killing four South Koreans and sparking brief fears of a full-scale conflict.
In an interview with US broadcaster CBS ahead of her summit with Obama, Park said any similar attack by the North would be met with a harsh military response.
“Yes, we will make them pay,” Park said, adding that Seoul would no longer engage in a “vicious cycle” of automatically meeting the North’s provocations and threats with negotiations and assistance.
“It is time for us to put an end to that cycle,” she said.
Earlier, a senior White House official warned that it was too early to say whether North Korea’s spate of bellicose behavior, which prompted Washington to send nuclear-capable stealth B-2 bombers over South Korea, was ending.
“It’s premature to make a judgement about whether the North Korean provocation cycle is going up, down or zigzagging,” said Danny Russel, senior director for East Asia on Obama’s National Security Council.
South Korea’s defense ministry would not comment on whether the North had moved its Musudan missiles from their launch pads, saying only that it was closely “tracking” all activity in the area.
It also declined to confirm a Yonhap news agency report, citing a senior government source in Seoul, that North Korea had ordered missile and rocket units to stand down from combat-ready status.