WASHINGTON — The United States will deploy a sophisticated antimissile defense system to Guam in response to North Korean threats to US military bases in the Pacific, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) is a relatively new land-based system designed to destroy incoming short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by crashing into them in the air. Only two batteries of the system, produced by Lockheed Martin, are currently deployed, both at Fort Bliss, Texas.
North Korea ratcheted up the rhetoric early Thursday, saying its military has been cleared to wage an attack on the United States using smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear weapons.
The warning, from an unnamed army spokesman and carried by Pyongyang’s state-run news agency, was the latest in a series of escalating threats from North Korea, which has railed for weeks against joint US and South Korean military exercises taking place in South Korea.
A Pentagon statement said deployment in Guam was expected ‘‘in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat.’’
‘They have nuclear capacity now. . . . We have to take those threats seriously.’
The announcement followed North Korea’s banning of South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex near the demilitarized zone. Obama administration officials had said earlier that the move would signal a more serious crisis beyond the bellicose rhetoric issued by North Korea over the past several weeks.
The current crisis began with North Korea’s long-range rocket launch in December and an underground nuclear test in February, provoking tighter United Nations sanctions and the deployment of US nuclear-capable stealth bombers to the peninsula as part of ongoing military exercises with South Korea.
On Tuesday, North Korea announced it would restart a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, and declared a ‘‘state of war’’ in the peninsula.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday called the North Korean actions a ‘‘real and clear danger and threat’’ to the United States’ allies in the region, South Korea and Japan.
‘‘They have nuclear capacity now,’’ he said. “They have missile delivery capacity now.’’
Hagel, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, specifically cited ‘‘the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States.’’
‘‘We have to take those threats seriously,’’ he said.
Last month, Hagel said the military will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska over the next three years to counter the threat of long-range North Korean missiles.
The military’s Missile Defense Agency contracted with Lockheed Martin last August to produce 12 new THAAD launchers, for a total of five batteries of the system. In addition to the two already deployed in Texas, the Pentagon agreed in late 2011 to sell two batteries to the United Arab Emirates as part of a $16 billion package of US defense equipment to the UAE and Qatar.
It was not clear whether the decision to deploy the THAAD system to Guam will delay the UAE delivery. That transaction, intended to boost Persian Gulf defenses against the threat from Iran, marked the first overseas sale of the missile defense system.
North Korea’s move to close the KAESONG Industrial Complex — located 6 miles north of the heavily fortified border with South Korea — has long stood as a nearly untouchable symbol of cooperation between the two sides of the peninsula, operated even during a pair of fatal 2010 attacks launched by the North on the South.
Some economists estimate that the complex generates between $20 million and $100 million a year for the North Korean economy, and noted that for now, North Korea has not shut the complex.
On Wednesday morning North Korea banned 179 South Koreans from making their daily cross-border trip to the site. South Korea said that 861 southern workers were already at the complex, and that many had opted to stay there to continue operations.