North Korea seen intent on provocation but no sign of nuclear test

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is intent on using missile launches to increase regional tension but it does not appear to be preparing for a fourth nuclear test or long-range missile launch, the U.S. and South Korean defense ministers said on Friday.

North Korea fired two surface-to-air missiles off its west coast just before U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter arrived in the region on Tuesday to visit staunch U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.

The North launched four short-range missiles off its west coast on April 3.

"As it demonstrated once again with its recent missile launches, North Korea is intent on continued provocation," Carter told a news conference in the South Korean capital, Seoul.

North Korea is under heavy sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Not all North Korean short-range missile launches are in defiance of a U.N. ban on ballistic missile technology. The isolated country has, however, previously launched a long-range rocket it said was designed to carry a satellite into space.

Carter said the U.S. military was developing and preparing to deploy new weapons in the region including new stealth bombers and different classes of naval vessels.

North Korea accuses the United States of building up forces in the region with the aim of invading it and it denounces annual military exercises by the United States and South Korea as a prelude to war.

Carer and his South Korean counterpart, Han Min-koo, said they did not discuss the possible deployment of an advanced missile defense system, the THAAD, in the South to counter the North's nuclear missile threat.

"We're not at the point yet where we would begin discussions with anyone around the world about where the THAAD batteries in production are going," Carter said.

China and Russia have both spoken out against placing THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, in South Korea.

Han said North Korea did not appear to be preparing for another long-range rocket launch or nuclear test any time soon.

"We haven't seen or confirmed any signs of an additional North Korean nuclear or (long-range) missile test in the near future," he said.

"But given their past behavior, when their strategic objectives are not met, there is always the possibility that they will resort to provocations."

North Korea's first nuclear test, in 2006, was widely condemned by other countries. It tested again in 2009, and more recently in 2013, drawing criticism from China, the isolated North's closest ally.

(Reporting by James Pearson, Ju-min Park and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel)