WASHINGTON - A senior US defense official said the Pentagon has delayed an intercontinental ballistic missile test for next week at an Air Force base in California amid mounting tensions with North Korea.
The official said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delayed the long-planned Minuteman 3 test because of concerns the launch could be misinterpreted and exacerbate the current crisis.
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"The US will conduct another test soon and remains strongly committed to our nuclear deterrence capabilities," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
North Korea's military has warned that it was authorized to attack the US using "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons.
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South Korean officials say the North moved at least one missile with "considerable range" to its east coast, suggesting a launch could be imminent.
US and South Korean annual military exercises have been ongoing, with warships and bombers in the region.
Over the weekend North Korea moved two medium-range missiles to its east coast and loaded them onto mobile launchers. The Musudan missiles, with a range of 1,865 miles, are capable of striking South Korea, Japan and US bases in the Pacific.
North Korean soldiers (Photo: AP)
The West estimates Pyongyang plan to test-fire the missiles rather than use them to launch a surprise attack.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to China in the coming days to discuss the North Korean crisis, among other things. Washington believes it is in China's interest to pressure Pyongyang into easing tensions with the US.
Senior US administration officials told CNN Kerry will discuss with the Chinese potential diplomatic incentives for North Korea once it stops its threatening rhetoric.
"Secretary Kerry agrees that we have to have a robust deterrent because we really don't' know what these guys will do," said one senior official.
Musudan missiles (Photo: EPA)
"But he also knows that the North Koreans need a diplomatic off-ramp and that they have to be able to see it."
In an unusual rebuke this week, Beijing called North Korea's moves "regrettable" - amounting to a slap from Pyongyang's strongest economic and diplomatic supporter.
Former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said last week that the Chinese "recognize that the actions that North Korea has taken in recent months and years are in fact antithetical to their own national security interests.
"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy" toward North Korea, said Campbell, who retired in February as the administration's top diplomat in East Asia and the Pacific region. "I don't think that provocative path can be lost on Pyongyang. ... I think that they have succeeded in undermining trust and confidence in Beijing," he said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described "good unity" between the US and China in responding to North Korea.
"The issue here is to continue to recognize that the threats we share are common, and the approaches are more likely to be more effective if we can work well together," she told reporters Thursday.
Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security and a senior State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, said Beijing also is helping set up back-channel negotiations with North Korea to ease the tensions.
But ultimately, he said, the US isn't likely to succeed in winning China over as a reliable partner against North Korea beyond the current flare-up.
"There is an opportunity for the US and China to renew cooperation on a North Korean strategy," Cronin was quoted by Fox News as saying. "But we can't put all of our hopes on that cooperation, because it's been less than satisfying in the past. There are limits to how far China and the US have coincidental interests with regard to North Korea. But it's not enough - because, more likely, we're likely to fail."
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