By Christine Kim and Martin Petty
SEOUL/GUAM (Reuters) - North Korea said on Thursday it was completing plans to fire four intermediate-range missiles over Japan to land near the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam in an unusually detailed threat that further heightened tensions with the United States.
North Korea's army will complete the plans in mid-August, when they will be ready for leader Kim Jong Un's order, state-run KCNA news agency reported, citing General Kim Rak Gyom, commander of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army. The plans called for the missiles to land in the sea only 30-40 km (18-25 miles) from Guam.
The reclusive communist country, technically still at war with the United States and South Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce and not a peace treaty, is known for making bellicose threats.
Experts in South Korea said North Korea's plans ratcheted up risks significantly, since Washington was likely to view any missile aimed at its territory as a provocation, even if launched as a test. North Korea has carried out a series of missile and nuclear bomb tests in defiance of the international community.
North Korea announced the plans following U.S. President Donald Trump's comments on Tuesday that any threats by Pyongyang would be "met with fire and fury like the world has never seen," remarks that KCNA called "a load of nonsense."
North Korea's apparently rapid progress in developing nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland has fueled tensions that erupted into a war of words between Washington and Pyongyang this week, unnerving regional powers and global investors.
World stocks fell for a third day, with shares in Seoul slumping to a seven-week low.
The rising tensions between North Korea and the United States -- the biggest foreign policy crisis Trump has faced in his six-month-old presidency -- contributed to a weak open for U.S. stocks.
The benchmark S&P 500 stock index <.SPX> dropped 0.75 percent in the first hour of trade. The index has had just two days so far this year where it has closed with losses of more than 1 percent.
As announced by North Korea, which added detail to a plan first unveiled on Wednesday, the planned path of the missiles would cross some of the world's busiest sea and air traffic routes.
Guam, a tropical island more than 3,000 km (2,000 miles) to the southeast of North Korea, is home to about 163,000 people and a U.S. air base, Navy installation that includes a submarine squadron and Coast Guard group.
"The Hwasong-12 rockets to be launched by the KPA (Korean People's Army) will cross the sky above Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi Prefectures of Japan," the North Korean report said. "They will fly 3,356.7 km (2,085.8 miles) for 1,065 seconds and hit the waters 30 to 40 km away from Guam."
"Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him," KCNA said of Trump.
While North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States and its allies, the report was unusual in its detail. It follows two successful tests of an intercontinental missile by the isolated state in July and a series of other missile tests.
"Even if the North's missiles do not hit the ocean territory of Guam, the U.S. will not tolerate such a provocation simply because it is a severe threat to its national security," said Cha Do-hyeogn, visiting researcher at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Masao Okonogi, professor emeritus at Japan's Keio University, said before the latest KCNA report that Pyongyang may be issuing a warning or advance notice of changes to its missile testing program rather than threatening an attack.
"I believe this is a message saying they plan to move missile tests from the Sea of Japan to areas around Guam," he told Reuters. "By making this advance notice, they are also sending a tacit message that what they are going to do is not an actual attack."
Major airlines that fly over the region said they had so far made no plans to change flight paths.
For an interactive graphic on North Korea's missile capabilities - http://tmsnrt.rs/2t6WEPL
Graphic on North Korean missile trajectories - http://tmsnrt.rs/2vLMdVm
'ENJOY THE BEACHES'
Visitors and residents on Guam appeared to be taking things in their stride. The main beach front on the island was packed with tourists dozing under trees or on the sun loungers of five-star hotels lined up before a calm sea.
Governor Eddie Calvo said Guam had experienced a Japanese invasion in World War Two and countless earthquakes and super-typhoons, and there was no U.S. community better prepared to meet the North Korean threat.
"We are concerned about these threats but at the same time we also want to make sure people don't panic and go on with their lives. Enjoy the beaches," Calvo said.
Lee Choon-geun, senior research fellow at South Korea's state-run Science and Technology Policy Institute, said there was a risk that any missile could land much closer to Guam than planned.
"The United States will consider it an apparent attack if it lands within its territorial waters and, given the risks involved, will most likely try to shoot them down before they land anywhere close to Guam and its territorial sea," Lee told Reuters.
"This could elevate the threats to an unprecedented level."
The U.S. Seventh Fleet currently has six Aegis ballistic missile defense ships in the region capable of targeting North Korean missiles, and Japan has a further four. Guam also has a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, similar to one recently installed in South Korea.
Japan could legally intercept a North Korean missile headed towards Guam, its defense minister said on Thursday, but experts believe Japan does not currently have the capability to do so.
Angered as the United States and its allies ignore Chinese calls to calm tensions over North Korea, and distracted by domestic concerns, China is largely sitting out the crisis.
Tension in the region has risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and the intercontinental missile tests, all in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Trump has said he will not allow Pyongyang to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States.
Washington has warned it is ready to use force if needed to stop North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs but that it prefers global diplomatic action. The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey and John Walcott in Washington, Soyoung Kim in Seoul, William Mallard, Tim Kelly, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Linda Sieg in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing, Jamie Freed in Singapore and John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Will Dunham; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alistair Bell)