The report came hours after North Korea's military warned that it has been authorized to attack the U.S. using "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons. It was the North's latest war cry against America in recent weeks. The reference to smaller weapons could be a claim that North Korea has improved its nuclear technology, or a bluff.
The North is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to miniaturize nuclear bombs enough to mount them on long-range missiles.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said he did not know the reasons behind the North's missile movement, and that it "could be for testing or drills."
He dismissed reports in Japanese media that the missile could be a KN-08, which is believed to be a long-range missile that if operable could hit the United States.
Kim told lawmakers at a parliamentary committee meeting that the missile has "considerable range" but not enough to hit the U.S. mainland.
The range he described could refer to a mobile North Korean missile known as the Musudan, believed to have a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles). That would make Japan and South Korea potential targets — along with U.S. bases in both countries — but there are doubts about the missile's accuracy.
The Pentagon announced that it will hasten the deployment of a missile defense system to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam to strengthen regional protection against a possible attack.
Experts say North Korea has not demonstrated that it has accurate long-range missiles. Some suspect that an apparent long-range missile unveiled by the North at a parade last year was actually a mockup.
"From what we know of its existing inventory, North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles that could complicate a situation on the Korean Peninsula (and perhaps reach Japan), but we have not seen any evidence that it has long-range missiles that could strike the continental U.S., Guam or Hawaii," James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, wrote in a recent analysis.
Kim, the South Korean defense minister, said that if North Korea were preparing for a full-scale conflict, there would be signs such as the mobilization of a number of units, including supply and rear troops, but South Korean military officials have found no such preparations.
"(North Korea's recent threats) are rhetorical threats. I believe the odds of a full-scale provocation are small," he said. But he added that North Korea might mount a small-scale provocation such as its 2010 shelling of a South Korean island, an attack that killed four people.
North Korea has been railing against joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that are taking place in South Korea and has expressed anger over tightened U.N. sanctions for its February nuclear test. Many of the threats come in the middle of the night in Asia — daytime for the U.S. audience.
Analysts say the threats are probably efforts to provoke softer policies from South Korea, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the image of young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At times, North Korea has gone beyond rhetoric.
On Tuesday, it announced it would restart a plutonium reactor it had shut down in 2007. A U.S. research institute said Wednesday that satellite imagery shows that construction needed for the restart has already begun.
For a second day Thursday, North Korean border authorities denied entry to South Koreans who manage jointly run factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong. South Koreans already at the plant were being allowed to return home.
South Korea has prepared a military contingency plan should North Korea hold South Korean workers hostage in Kaesong, Defense Minister Kim said. He wouldn't elaborate.
Outraged over comments in the South about possible hostage-taking and a military response from Seoul, a North Korean government-run committee threatened to pull North Korean workers out of Kaesong as well.
North Korea's military statement Thursday, from an unnamed spokesman from the General Bureau of the Korean People's Army, said its troops had been authorized to counter U.S. "aggression" with "powerful practical military counteractions," including nuclear weapons.
It said America's "hostile policy" and "nuclear threat" against North Korea "will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means."
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington is doing all it can to defuse the situation.
"Some of the actions they've taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger and threat" to the U.S. and its allies, Hagel said Wednesday.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said its military is ready to deal with any provocation by North Korea. "I can say we have no problem in crisis management," deputy ministry spokesman Wee Yong-sub told reporters.
The defense minister, however, was criticized by lawmakers over a North Korean defector who stole a South Korean fishing boat Wednesday night and fled back to North Korea across the western sea border.
Kim said South Korean radar had a "blind spot" in the area and South Korean troops were unaware the defector was fleeing until he almost reached the North Korean side. Lawmakers questioned his military's readiness to detect and counter enemy troops who might use similar blind spots.
This spring's annual U.S.-South Korea drills have incorporated fighter jets and nuclear-capable stealth bombers. The allies insist they are routine exercises. North Korea calls them rehearsals for a northward invasion and says it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself.
On Sunday, Kim Jong Un led a high-level meeting of party officials who declared building the economy and "nuclear armed forces" as the nation's priorities.
North Korea is believed to be working toward building an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a long-range missile. Long-range rocket launches designed to send satellites into space in 2009 and 2012 were widely considered covert tests of missile technology, and North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests.
"I don't believe North Korea has the capacity to attack the United States with nuclear weapons mounted on missiles, and won't for many years. Its ability to target and strike South Korea is also very limited," nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said this week.
In comments posted on CISAC's website, Hecker said North Korea knows a nuclear attack would be met with "a devastating nuclear response."
Hecker has estimated that North Korea has enough plutonium to make several crude nuclear bombs. Its announcement Tuesday that it would restart a plutonium reactor indicated that it intends to produce more nuclear weapons material.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has analyzed recent commercial satellite imagery of the Nyongbyon nuclear facility, where the reactor was shut down in 2007 under the terms of a disarmament agreement. A cooling tower for the reactor was destroyed in 2008.
The analysis published Wednesday on the institute's website, 38 North, says that rebuilding the tower would take six months, but a March 27 photo shows building work may have started for an alternative cooling system that could take just weeks. Experts estimate it could take three months to a year to restart the plant.
___ Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Youkyung Lee in Seoul contributed to this report. ___ Follow Sam Kim on Twitter at twitter.com/samkim_ap
Following a total of more than 13 hours of respectful and at times somber debate, the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in favor of the 139-page bill crafted by leaders from both major parties in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
The bill passed 26-10 in the Senate and 105-44 in the House. Both were bipartisan votes.
Malloy's office said he would sign the legislation at noon Thursday during a ceremony at the state Capitol.
"I pray today's bill — the most far-reaching gun safety legislation in the country — will prevent other families from ever experiencing the dreadful loss that the 26 Sandy Hook families have felt," said House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, referring to the families of the 20 first graders and six educators killed Dec. 14 inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The December massacre, which reignited a national debate on gun control, set the stage for changes in the state that may have been impossible elsewhere: The governor, who personally informed parents that their children had been killed that day, championed the cause, and legislative leaders, keenly aware of the attention on the state, struck a bipartisan agreement they want to serve as a national model.
The legislation adds more than 100 firearms to the state's assault weapons ban and creates what officials have called the nation's first dangerous weapon offender registry as well as eligibility rules for buying ammunition. Some parts of the bill would take effect immediately after Malloy's signature, including background checks for all firearms sales.
Connecticut will join states including California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts in having the country's strongest gun control laws, said Brian Malte, director of mobilization for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.
"This would put Connecticut right at the top or near the top of the states with the strongest gun laws," Malte said.
Colorado and New York also passed new gun control requirements in the wake of the Newtown shooting, in which a 20-year-old gunman used a military-style semi-automatic rifle.
Compared with Connecticut's legislation, which, for example, bans the sale or purchase of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds, New York restricted magazines to seven bullets and gave owners of higher-capacity magazines a year to sell them elsewhere. Colorado banned ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.
"There are pieces that are stronger in other states, but, in totality, this will be the strongest gun legislation passed in the United States," Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said of the Connecticut bill.
But some lawmakers said they felt the legislation did not do enough to address mental health issues.
Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, a freshman Republican lawmaker from Newtown, acknowledged the legislation "is not perfect" and he hoped would be "a beginning in addressing critical mental health needs."
Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, said he felt the bill "doesn't speak to the issue of gun violence that has permeated our cities," adding how families in his district who've lost children to gun violence have not received the same level of attention from state politicians as the Newtown families.
Many legislators spoke of balancing the rights of gun owners with addressing the horror of the Sandy Hook shooting. They've received thousands of emails and phone calls urging them to vote for or against the bill, with veteran Sen. Joan Hartley, a Democrat, saying she's never seen a more polarizing issue at the state Capitol.
But Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown, said he felt he was representing the interests of the Sandy Hook victims as he cast his vote.
"I stand here as their voice, as their elected representative," he said, reciting the names of the 26 victims at the school.
Lawmakers appeared to still be stunned by the enormity of the massacre.
"When a child is sent to school, their parents expect them to be safe. The Sandy Hook shooting rampage was a parent's, a school system's, a community's and the nation's worst nightmare," said Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton.
Gun rights advocates who greatly outnumbered gun control supporters in demonstrations held earlier in the day at the Capitol railed against the proposals as misguided and unconstitutional, occasionally chanting "No! No! No!" and "Read the bill!"
"We want them to write laws that are sensible," said Ron Pariseau, of Pomfret, who was angry he'll be made a felon if he doesn't register his weapons that will no longer be sold in Connecticut. "What they're proposing will not stop anything."
By the time the Senate voted around 6:30 p.m., many of the gun rights advocates had gone home, leaving behind proponents of the bill who applauded when the tally in the Senate was read. The halls were mostly empty by the time the House voted at 2:26 a.m. on Thurdsay.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who helped craft the bill, said he realizes the gun owners are unhappy with the bill, but he stressed that no one will lose their legally owned guns or magazines under the legislation.
"We did our job. We did it together," he said. "We did the best we could and I think we did a good thing."
In the legislature, where Democrats control both houses, leaders waited to unveil gun legislation until they struck a bipartisan deal that they say shows how the parties can work together elsewhere. They touted the package as a comprehensive response to Newtown that also addresses mental health and school security measures, including the creation of a new council to establish school safety standards and the expansion of circumstances when someone's mental history disqualifies him or her from obtaining a gun permit or other gun credentials.
But momentum on federal legislation has stalled in Congress, and President Barack Obama has planned a trip to Connecticut on Monday to step up pressure to pass a bill.
A silent majority in favor of stronger gun control has emerged following the Newtown massacre, Gallo said.
Among the gun control advocates were Dan and Lauren Garrett, of Hamden, wearing green shirts in honor of the Sandy Hook victims. The Garretts traveled to Hartford with their 10-month-old son, Robert, to watch the bill's passage. They said they hope lawmakers will build on the proposal.
"It's just the beginning of this bill. In six months from now, it's going to get stronger and stronger," Dan Garrett said. "I think they're watching us all over the country."
Associated Press writers Stephen Kalin and Michael Melia in Hartford and John Christoffersen in New Haven contributed to this report.
A West Virginia sheriff with a reputation cracking down on drug dealers was shot in the head at point blank range and killed outside a county courthouse today, officials and witnesses said.
Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum was shot and killed while sitting in his vehicle during his lunch break in the town of Williamson, state Delegate Harry Keith White told ABC News.
A witness told ABC News that he watched the suspect approach Crum's car, where he was known to eat lunch, and fire twice into the vehicle. The suspect then calmly walked to his truck, described as a tan Ford ranger, and drove away.
Another witness, Larry Dove, told the West Virginia Gazette he saw a man shoot Crum "right in the head."
The shooting suspect was wounded, captured and taken to a hospital, the Associated Press reported.
Crum was elected sheriff in January.
His death follows a string of high-profile assassinations of law enforcement officers and prosecutors in recent weeks, including two Texas prosecutors and the chief of Colorado's prison system.
Investigators from around the country are working to determine if there is any connection among the killings.
Since April 2, 2012, 28 police officers have been killed nationwide, according to preliminary data by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Of those deaths, 13 were caused by guns.