WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US military beefed up defenses in Hawaii on Friday over fears thatcould launch a missile toward the Pacific island chain.
The US military also tracked a North Korean ship possibly carrying banned cargo -- the first vessel to be monitored under UN sanctions imposed last week after the Stalinist state carried out an underground nuclear test on May 25.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that there were concerns that North Korea might "launch a missile... in the direction of Hawaii."
He said he had approved the deployment of THAAD missile defense weapons to Hawaii and a radar system nearby "to provide support" in case of a North Korean launch. Ground-based defenses in Alaska were also at the ready, Gates added.
"I would just say I think we are in a good position should it become necessary to protect American territory," he said.
The Theatre High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) weapons, coupled with the radar system, are designed to shoot down.
US and South Korean officials have said North Korea might be readying another ballistic missile test after three launches in 1998, 2006 and this year.
Pyongyang said its latest April 5 launch put a satellite into orbit. The United States and its allies labeled it a disguised test of a Taepodong-2 missile theoretically capable of reaching Alaska.
Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper this week quoted Japanese defense ministry sources as saying any new test of North Korea's two or three stage Taepodong-2 missile would probably be fired toward Hawaii even if it could not hit the island chain.
It quoted the ministry as saying the Korean peninsula.has a range of 4,000-6,500 kilometres (2,500-4,000 miles), but that Hawaii is more than 7,000 kilometers from the
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been running high since Pyongyang carried out its second nuclear test last month.
A US defense official confirmed that the military has been monitoring a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, that might be carrying nuclear or missile-related cargo in violation of new UN sanctions.
"There is a particular ship that we are closely monitoring," the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
The ship could provide the first test of a UN Security Council resolution adopted a week ago that bans shipments of arms and nuclear and missile technology to and from North Korea.
The US military has long kept a close watch on ships heading in and out of North Korea, but the new UN resolution means "we have newfound authorities and responsibilities," the official said.
The UN resolution calls for inspections of ships but rules out the use of military force to back up the searches.
The sanctions allow for the US Navy and others to ask to inspect North Korean vessels and ships flagged from other countries suspected of carrying banned cargo.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military officer said the United States would "vigorously enforce" Security Council resolution 1874.
If the ship refuses the search, then the vessel would be directed to a nearby port, Mullen told a news conference with Gates.
Mullen would not confirm whether the military was tracking a particular North Korean vessel.
The United Nations resolution calls on member states to inspect ships if there are "reasonable grounds" that a vessel may be carrying illicit cargo.
Analysts say however that North Korea could get around the shipping measures by transporting banned cargo by air and exploiting provisions that prohibit the use of military force.
However, experts say the financial sanctions in the UN resolution could prove more effective against the isolated Stalinist state.
On June 13, the North vowed to build more nuclear bombs and start enriching uranium for a new atomic weapons program, in response to the new UN sanctions. It has not yet demonstrated the ability to put a nuclear warhead on one of its ballistic missiles.
The United States said Thursday it is looking into five-way talks with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea about pressuring North Korea to change tack on its nuclear and missile programs.
The idea was raised, a US official said, when Obama hosted South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak this week.
Jerald Terwilliger, Vice Chairman
American Cold War Veterans, Inc.