A North Korean soldier, in the background, looks to the southern side of… (Lee Jin-man / Associated…)
BEIJING -- North Korea is poised to launch as many as five missiles from its east coast, South Korean intelligence officials said Thursday. But security analysts said they believed the launches would be part of a military exercise and would not pose an immediate threat to the United States, Japan or South Korea.
The military exercise apparently would be part of the festivities planned for a national holiday Monday marking the birthday of the country's late founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader.
"There is no threat,” said Xu Guangyu, a senior military analyst in Beijing. “The grandson is using the missiles to salute his grandfather and celebrate his power.’’
Nevertheless, both Japan and South Korea said they will use Patriot anti-missile systems to shoot down any projectiles that threaten their territory.
Among the missiles that might be launched is a new, as-yet-untested Musudan with an estimated range of up to 2,400 miles, enough to reach the Pacific island of Guam.
South Korean intelligence sources were quoted Thursday as saying satellites had detected two of the missiles and launchers being moved in and out of a shed near the coastal city of Wonsan.
"There are signs the North could fire off Musudan missiles any time soon," an unidentified intelligence source in Seoul told the state-run Yonhap news agency.
The South Korean officials also predicted possible launches of short-range Scud missiles and medium-range Rodong missiles.
Trying to defuse the tension, the South Korean government Thursday suggested negotiations over a jointly run industrial park in Kaesong, just north of the demilitarized zone. North Korea pulled out its 53,000 workers this week, threatening a project that had been one of the crowning achievements of inter-Korean cooperation.
Officials in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, have been issuing daily predictions about the imminent outbreak of nuclear war.
On Thursday, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said that Pyongyang had “powerful striking means” on standby for a launch that would "turn the stronghold of the enemies into a sea of fire."
"Regrets will be of no use," the committee said in a statement.
But tourists, who flew out Thursday after a two-week trip, said they saw no signs of war preparations or anxiety among the North Korean population.
"Soldiers are working in the fields, planting trees, or just hanging around,’’ said Kees Wielinga, a Dutch businessman who had returned through Beijing. “There were no civil defense preparations, no mobilization at all.’’
Despite the frightening rhetoric of recent weeks, and the various threats to use nuclear weapons against U.S. interests, military analysts said the planned launches did not appear to be in preparation for war.
"I worry as much about North Korea unleashing a full-scale war as I do about an asteroid hitting my house,’’ said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank.
"We expect these missiles will fall in the ocean and give the intel people a chance to study their weapons systems," he said.
Shin In-kyun, who heads an alliance of defense experts based in Seoul, added that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, wants to show his people that he is taking a “bold stance” against the United States and Japan.
“A successful missile launch will boost the festivities within North Korea," said Shin, president of the Korea Defense Network.
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Special correspondent Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.