WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Wednesday that it was sending a mobile missile defense system to Guam as a "precautionary move," as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said North Korea posed a "real and clear danger" to the U.S. military base on the western Pacific island, as well as to allies and other U.S. territory.
North Korea has named Guam and Hawaii as potential targets in bellicose statements in recent weeks, which have increased tension on the Korean peninsula and prompted a series of U.S. military moves aimed at beefing up the American presence in the region and reassuring allies that the United States will come to their aid in the event of an attack. In its latest statement, issued early Thursday, the North Korean military said it was ready to attack the United States using "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons.
The decision to send a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to Guam came after Pentagon officials were questioned in recent days about whether the island — a U.S. territory — has been covered by the U.S. missile defense system. The system includes ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California as well as warships capable of shooting down missiles.
North Korea has "ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric, and some of the actions they've taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger and threat," Hagel said Wednesday in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
Areas at risk include South Korea and Japan, as well as Guam, Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States, he said. "We have to take those threats seriously."
Despite the concern, North Korea has not demonstrated that its missiles have the range to hit Guam or Hawaii, much less the U.S. mainland. Nor is it known to have a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried on its missiles.
But a senior U.S. official said the decision to send the interceptors to Guam came because of growing concern that North Korea improved the range of its ballistic missiles, possibly giving them the ability to hit the island. He asked not to be identified because he was discussing sensitive intelligence assessments.
Asked about Guam last month, Undersecretary of Defense James Miller said the U.S. missile defense system "provides coverage of not just the continental United States, but all the United States." But some analysts note that the U.S. military's own maps show that Guam is not within the geographic reach of the ground-based interceptor.
Guam, in the Pacific between the Philippines and Hawaii, is home to Andersen Air Force Base and U.S. Naval Base Guam.
Defense officials said Guam was still covered by U.S. warships in the Pacific equipped to shoot down ballistic missiles. Sending the ground-based system to Guam beefs up the U.S. defense. The so-called THAAD system, which the Pentagon said would arrive in Guam "in coming weeks," includes a truck-mounted launcher, interceptor missiles, a tracking radar and a fire-control computer system.
The system shoots interceptors designed to hit ballistic missiles in the final phase of their flight as they descend toward their targets.
"I hope the North will ratchet this very dangerous rhetoric down," Hagel said. "There is a pathway that's responsible for the North to get on a path to peace." But, he added, "you don't achieve that responsibility and peace and prosperity by making nuclear threats and taking very provocative actions."
Special correspondent Jung Yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report