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 Koreans might be able to launch a nuclear strike.
The Obama administration insists that while the unpredictable government might have rudimentary nuclear capabilities, it has not proven it has a weapon that could reach the United States.
A senior defense official said the United States 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, though, the United States 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 South Korea again.
The mood in the North Korean capital, meanwhile, is hardly so tense. Many people were in the streets Friday preparing for the birthday of national founder Kim Il Sung -- the biggest holiday of the year. Even so, this year's big flower show in Kim's honor features an exhibition of orchids built around mock-ups of red-tipped missiles, slogans hailing the military and reminders of threats to the nation.
The plain fact is that no one can be sure how far North Korea has progressed in its pursuit of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, aside perhaps from a few people close to its new leader, Kim Jong Un.
Concern about the North's threatening rhetoric jumped a notch 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, a message also delivered by the Pentagon and by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
The attention-getting DIA report made no such suggestion, however. It simply offered what amounts to an educated guess that the North has some level of nuclear weapons capability. It has been working on that for at least 20 years, and private analysts who closely track North Korean developments say it's fairly clear that the North has made progress.