WASHINGTON — On the brink of an expected North Korean missile test, U.S. officials focused on the limits of Pyongyang's nuclear firepower Friday, trying to shift attention from the disclosure that the North Koreans might be able to launch a nuclear strike. They insisted that while the unpredictable government might have rudimentary nuclear capabilities, it has not proved it has a weapon that could reach the United States.
A senior defense official said the U.S. sees a "strong likelihood" that North Korea will launch a test missile in coming days in defiance of international calls for restraint. The effort is expected to test the North's ballistic missile technologies, not a nuclear weapon, said the official, who was granted anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
Unless the missile unexpectedly heads for a U.S. or allied target, the Pentagon does not plan to try to shoot it down, several officials said. As a precaution, the U.S. has arrayed in the Pacific a number of missile defense Navy ships, tracking radars and other elements of its worldwide network for shooting down hostile missiles.
The tensions playing out on the Korean peninsula are the latest in a long-running drama that dates to the 1950-53 Korean War, fed by the North's conviction that Washington is intent on destroying the government in Pyongyang and Washington's worry that the North could, out of desperation, reignite the war by invading the South.
The mood in the North Korean capital, meanwhile, was less tense. Many people were in the streets preparing for the birthday April 15 of Kim Il Sung — the biggest holiday of the year.
The plain fact is no one can be sure how far North Korea has progressed in its pursuit to become a full-fledged nuclear power, aside perhaps from a few people close to its new leader, Kim Jong Un.
More is known about North Korea's conventional military firepower, and it is being heavily monitored for signs of trouble. The North has long had thousands of artillery guns positioned close enough to the border to hit Seoul with a murderous barrage on short notice.
Concern about the North's threatening rhetoric jumped a notch on Thursday with the disclosure on Capitol Hill that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency believes with "moderate confidence" that the North could deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile. The DIA assessment did not mention the potential range of such a strike, but it led to a push by administration officials to minimize the significance of the jarring disclosure.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in Seoul on Friday "it's inaccurate to suggest" that the North had fully tested and demonstrated its ability to deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile.