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defense chief-NK missile

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said Thursday that North Korea has moved an intermediate-range missile to its east coast for an imminent test firing or military drill, but it does not seem to be aimed at striking the U.S. mainland.

In a parliamentary defense committee meeting, Kim refuted media reports that Pyongyang has moved a KN-08 missile, which is believed to have a range of 10,000 kilometers, into position to strike the U.S.

Without specifying the type of missile, Kim said it is believed to be able to reach a "considerable distance," though it is not able to strike the U.S. mainland.

"The missile does not seem to be aimed at the U.S. mainland," Kim told lawmakers. "It could be aimed at test firing or military drills."

Although there is slim chance that Pyongyang's harsh rhetoric could lead to a full-scale war, Kim said the North could launch other forms of provocations, including border clashes and cyber attacks.

"Our military has upgraded several systems and carried out drills under upgraded military readiness status," Kim said.

Kim, however, denied reports that the South Korean Army will hit statues of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung if the North launches a local provocation, saying "We have no plan to do that."

According to intelligence analysis by South Korean and U.S. forces, it is believed to be a Musudan missile, which is estimated to have a range of 3,000-4,000 km, putting the U.S. base in Guam within striking.

In positioning the missile on its east coast, the North has prompted the U.S. to move its advanced missile defense system to its base on the Pacific Ocean island of Guam along with radar systems.

It has yet to be confirmed whether the missile is carrying a warhead, but sources forecast that Pyongyang is likely to fire it around the middle of April, when North Koreans celebrate the birthday of the North's founder, Kim Il-sung.

The North has yet to conduct a test firing of a Musudan missile. The international community first became aware that the communist country owned this type of missile in October 2010 when the North revealed it during a military parade in Pyongyang.

During the meeting, Kim said his military is nearing a decision to buy long-range air-to-surface missiles by Germany's Taurus System to arm the Air Force's fighter jets, giving them the capability to strike all parts of North Korea.

Seoul had considered buying Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) by Lockheed Martin, but the U.S. government has not approved sales of the 370-km range air-to-surface missile to South Korea, Kim said, making the Taurus System the only bidder in the project.

"In times of crisis, South Korea, U.S., Japan jointly operate their combat forces," Kim said. "It is true that we are short of current things (missiles), and we will pick Taurus to deploy its missiles."

The state-run Defense Acquisition and Procurement Agency is currently in consultation with the German company over price conditions, officials said, noting no decision has been confirmed yet.

The missile-procurement decision comes as South Korea is preparing to buy 60 fighter jets. Lockheed Martin's Corp's F-35 stealth fighter, Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle fighter and multinational European defense firm EADS's Eurofighter are currently in competition for the deal.

The U.S. Defense Department on Wednesday said it has approved the sale of either F-35 or F-15 Silent Eagle fighters to South Korea.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees foreign military sales, notified U.S. lawmakers last Friday about the possible deal with South Korea, saying that American warplanes would help Seoul "deter aggression in the region."

South Korea's plan to buy new fighter jets is expected to be finalized by June, with negotiations currently underway between the state arms procurement agency and the three competitors over price, according to officials at the state procurement agency.

The defense chief also said he briefed President Park Geun-hye earlier this week about the plan to strike a deal in the first half of this year.

Regarding a border crossing by a North Korean defector near the tensely guarded western sea, Kim apologized for the incident that happened at a time of growing security concerns over the high military tension with the communist rival.

The 28-year-old defector who was living in South Korea stole a 9-ton crab fishing boat on the border island of Yeonpyeong to sail across the maritime border in the Yellow Sea on Wednesday night.

Kim said the defector slipped through the blind site of the radar at night because it was focused on the north side of the border.

In response to growing threats of cyber attack, Kim vowed to expand the Cyber Command forces to enhance the military preparedness.

"Currently, there are not enough forces belonging to the Cyber Command," Kim said. "We we have plan to increase their number to over 1,000."

South Korea has about 400 personnel under the Cyber Command, a special unit launched in early 2010. The North is known to be running a cyber warfare unit composed of 3,000 elite hackers who are trained to break into other computer networks for information and spread computer viruses.

In a policy briefing, the defense ministry had announced its plan to develop deterrence methods in response to various cyber attacks against an unprovoked attack both in times of war and peace.

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