WASHINGTON North Korea has taken two Musudan missiles off launch-ready status and moved them from the country's east coast, U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday, after weeks of concern that Pyongyang had been poised for a test-launch.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned North Korea last month that it would be a "huge mistake" to fire the medium-range missiles. The prospects of a test had put Seoul, Washington and Tokyo on edge, especially following nearly two months of bellicosity from Pyongyang that included threats to attack South Korea and the United States.
The move to shift the missiles follows a reduction in rhetoric from Pyongyang.
One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the missiles were still mobile and the fact they had been moved was no guarantee they would not be set up elsewhere and fired at some point.
"It is premature to celebrate it as good news," said another U.S. official, Daniel Russel, the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
However, a third U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States did not believe the missiles had gone to an alternate launch site and that they were now believed to be in a non-operational location.
The Musudan missiles have a range of 3,000 to 3,500 kilometers (1,900 to 2,200 miles). They have not been tested before.
In Seoul, South Korea's Defence Ministry declined to confirm any movement of the missiles, saying it was still tracking the North's missile activities, indicating it had yet to conclude Pyongyang had shelved plans for a launch from its east coast.
"We have said we'd be able to speak publicly when the North has completely withdrawn (the missiles)," said ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok.
In another sign North Korea is shifting its focus away from confrontation, its official media on Tuesday carried reports of leader Kim Jong-un giving "field guidance" on construction work done by the military. Similar reports were issued on Monday.
The North's official media normally suspends reporting on such activities by its leaders during periods of tension with the international community.
North Korea will likely feature during a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the White House on Tuesday, where they will have a working lunch followed by a joint news conference.
The North has also remained in the spotlight after it sentenced a Korean American who visited the country last November to 15 years hard labour for what it said were crimes against the state.
Human rights activists in South Korea say Kenneth Bae may have been arrested for taking pictures of starving children. A U.S. official said last week Washington was not looking for an envoy to try to secure the release of Bae, who was sentenced last Thursday.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment on the status of the North Korean missiles.
"I wouldn't again comment on intelligence. But what we have seen recently is a 'provocation pause.' And we think that's obviously beneficial to efforts to ensure we have peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," Little told reporters.
The heightened tensions, including North Korean threats to attack U.S. bases in the Pacific, coincided with U.S.-South Korean military drills that Pyongyang had branded "a rehearsal for invasion." Those drills ended on April 30.
In a rare show of force during the drills, two nuclear-capable, bat-winged B-2 stealth bombers flew 37 1/2 hours from their U.S. base to drop dummy munitions on a South Korean range, and then returned home.
Asked what may have contributed to Pyongyang's latest move, Little noted various possibilities, including the fact that North Korea's previous cycles of provocation had ended after a period of time.
He also noted that the Chinese government had made some helpful statements.
"We do think they (China) probably - again I can't speak for them - they probably heard very loudly from us and from others the need to ratchet it back and lower the temperature," Little said.
The White House's Russel told reporters it was too early to determine whether North Korea's apparent move away from a launch was an encouraging development.
"It's premature to make a judgment about whether the North Koreans' provocation cycle is going up, down or zigzagging," he said. "The decision to launch or not launch missiles, to conduct a provocation or to stand down or defer it, is a decision that rests with the North Koreans." (Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Jack Kim in Seoul. Editing by Dean Yates and Jim Loney)