SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has recently created an army division in charge of newly developed intermediate-range missiles capable of striking U.S. forces in Japan and Guam, a South Korean news agency said Tuesday.
The report came as North Korea is stepping up its war rhetoric against the U.S. and South Korea after the allies started their annual drills Monday aimed at improving their defense capabilities.
The North's People's Army recently launched a division supervising operational deployment of missiles with a range of more than 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) that it had developed in recent years, Yonhap news agency reported citing an unidentified South Korean government source.
The missiles could pose a threat to U.S. forces in Japan, Guam and other Pacific areas that are to be redeployed in time of emergency on the Korean peninsula, Yonhap said.
The report, however, didn't provide further details like how many missiles the new division possesses and where they are positioned.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said Tuesday it couldn't confirm the Yonhap report. However, a ministry document published last year showed that the North deployed a new type medium-range missile believed to the same type it displayed during a military parade in 2007.
If confirmed, the division's launch could suggest that the North has succeeded in developing more medium-range missiles since 2007 and it needed a bigger unit to manage them, said Ohm Tae-am of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
The division's "primary role is to contain the reinforcements of U.S. troops" in the Pacific to the Korean peninsula as its missiles put U.S. bases in Japan and Guam within striking distances, Baek Seung-joo of the same institute said.
North Korea's missile program is a major regional security concern, along with its nuclear weapons development program. Last year, the North conducted a prohibited long-range rocket test and later detonated a nuclear device, inviting worldwide condemnation and tighter U.N. sanctions.
On Tuesday, the North continued its salvo against the U.S. and South Korea over their military drills that the regime has long slammed as a rehearsal for invasion.
"This cannot be interpreted otherwise than a grave provocation," the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It said the North will continue its nuclear capability as long as the U.S. military threats persist.
The ministry, however, said the North is ready for both dialogue and war, a position that contrast from a military statement Sunday that the North would break off dialogue with the U.S. in response to the drills.
About 18,000 American soldiers and an undisclosed number of South Korean troops are taking part in 11 days of drills across South Korea.
The U.S., which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, has said the drills are purely defensive.