By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration, which has made military moves intended to signal to North Korea and U.S. allies that it takes Pyongyang's threats seriously, plans to switch gears and tone down public pronouncements about joint military exercises with Seoul, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The U.S. messaging, which has included flying two B-2 stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula and the announcement of new or expanded missile defense systems in Alaska and Guam, was intended to reassure South Korea and Japan it would back them in a crisis, the officials said.
But it also appears to have prompted even greater threats and bellicose rhetoric from North Korea.
"Our actions thus far have had their intended effect: they've shown our deterrence capability and our willingness to defend South Korea. We always make adjustment and if going quiet for a short period of time gives the North Koreans space to dial back their rhetoric, fine," said one U.S. official.
U.S. officials say they do not see a conflict with North Korea as imminent. And they have told U.S. allies Pyongyang's threats of war appear to be just rhetoric, according to U.N. diplomats.
Washington still plans to forge ahead with joint military exercises with South Korea, which Pyongyang has branded a "rehearsal for invasion," said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This includes an amphibious assault drill by the United States and South Korea at the end of April. The exercises, named "Foal Eagle," began on March 1 and will end on April 30.
"It's not so much that we're dialing back the exercises. We may not be as public about it," the official said.
Last week, in a pointed message to Pyongyang, the U.S. military command in South Korea announced a first-of-its-kind practice bombing drill by B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea.
Two of the nuclear-capable, bat-winged planes flew 37 1/2-hours from their U.S. base to drop dummy munitions on a South Korean range, and then returned home.
A second U.S. official acknowledged there had been some debate at lower levels within the administration about the B-2 flight, given its potential to agitate Pyongyang. But the idea did not run into opposition in higher-level discussions, the official said.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR TENSION
U.S. hopes of easing the crisis could face a bumpy road.
Western officials on Thursday confirmed that North Korea has moved a rocket, apparently a medium-range missile known as a Musudan or Nodong B, to its east coast.
Experts said it was unclear if the missile was moved as a menacing gesture or in preparation for a test firing.
Analysts are anxiously looking ahead to April 15, the birthday of Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founder and the grandfather of its current leader, Kim Jong-un. The anniversary is a time of mass celebrations, nationalist fervor and sometimes demonstrations of military prowess.
And U.S. concerns about North Korea are certain to be aired publicly in testimony before Congress next week by top Pentagon officials, including the commanders of U.S. forces in Korea and the broader Pacific region.
Officials hope the coming weeks will see a more measured tone that could at least open room for diplomacy over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, something that seems impossible now.
"As these exercises wind down, we're probably going to be pivoting more to the diplomatic phase," a U.S. official said. "You get to a point where you get diminishing returns from unilateral sanctions, or B-2s."
While U.S. officials can't rule out a North Korean provocation, like a rocket launch, they said there are no signs Pyongyang is gearing up for war.
"We're not seeing any kind of troop movements, still" that would signal preparations for a conflict, the first U.S. official added.
Britain's ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, told reporters on Thursday there was a sense that "this is the usual game that is played every decade or so."
"The experts seem to be still of the view that this is a degree of theater, of game-playing, which is familiar, but some of the stuff has been more extreme than what's happened in the past," Westmacott said.
Some U.S. officials believe Pyongyang's bellicosity is aimed primarily at a domestic audience.
They see Kim trying to keep his vast, poorly paid army motivated with anti-U.S. propaganda and improve his status among North Korea's largely poor population by standing up to foreign enemies, even as he seeks to cement his grip on power.
(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel, Louis Charbonneau, Arshad Mohammed and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Todd Eastham)