SEOUL — North Korea is preparing to deploy a newly developed ballistic missile that has a range sufficient to reach U.S. bases in Guam and possibly Hawaii, South Korean newspapers reported this week.
The North has been trying for years to develop ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, but it has been widely assumed that such missiles were in the developmental stage.
If the reports are confirmed, they would be an alarming development given that the Pyongyang government is also pursuing nuclear technology.
The reports cited unnamed South Korean officials saying that intelligence satellites had recently collected evidence of two missile bases under construction in North Korea. Missiles and mobile launching pads observed at the sites were said to be of a design that did not resemble North Korea's better-known Rodong missiles.
"We presume these bases to be for a new kind of ballistic missiles -- not Rodongs or Scuds," a high-ranking South Korean official was quoted as telling the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative daily newspaper that broke the story.
The official told the newspaper that the missile was likely to have a range of 1,800 to 2,500 miles, making it capable of reaching key Pacific bases in Guam and Okinawa. And because the missile can be launched from a craft, it might be able to reach Hawaii.
"I believe this is an entirely new missile," said Kim Tae Woo, an expert on the North Korean military at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. He said there was no evidence that North Korea had test-fired the missile. But he said the building of bases suggested that the government was confident enough in the missile's accuracy to prepare to deploy it, and that it was no longer in the developmental stage.
Information about the missiles was reportedly gathered by U.S. intelligence satellites. Kim suggested that neither South Korea nor the United States had been eager -- for diplomatic and political reasons -- to make public the reports on the missile.
"Washington doesn't want to see anything shocking like this come out before the presidential election. The South Korean government usually keeps silent about what North Korea is doing," Kim said.
The South Korean government has been trying to nudge North Korea into adopting a more conciliatory position in ongoing discussions among them and four other countries over Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons. Talks on economic cooperation between the Koreas opened Wednesday in Pyongyang. Low-level talks on the nuclear issue are scheduled next week in Beijing.
The South Korea Defense Ministry declined to answer questions about the intermediate-range missiles at a news conference. Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul also refused to comment.
North Korea's new missile bases were reportedly first detected late last year and are said to be 70% to 80% complete. One is located in Yangdok, 50 miles east of Pyongyang, and the other in Hochon in North Hamgyong province.
North Korea's Rodong missile has a range of 810 miles, making it capable of reaching most of Japan. In 1998, the North test-fired a long-range missile called the Taepodong 1 over Japan. But that missile is considered to be in the development stage, as is the Taepodong 2, which is believed to have a potential range of 4,000 miles.
"There is a lot of speculation about North Korea's efforts to build missiles that could reach the United States, but there is no evidence that they've achieved that yet," said Hong Yong Pyo, a missile expert at Hanyang University in Seoul.