SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States deployed two missile-interceptor ships from South Korea on Monday, a military spokesman said, days ahead of a North Korean rocket launch widely seen as a long-range missile test that violates U.N. sanctions.
The launch presents the first significant challenge by the prickly state to U.S. President Barack Obama, who will discuss Pyongyang’s intentions with global leaders including Chinese President Hu Jintao this week at the G20 summit in London. The United States, however, has no intention to shoot down the rocket in a test seen by Washington as part of Pyongyang’s goal to eventually develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday.
“I would say we’re not prepared to do anything about it,” Gates said on “Fox News Sunday” when asked if the Pentagon planned to shoot down the missile.
“If we had an aberrant missile, one that looked like it was headed for Hawaii, we might consider it,” he said, adding the Pentagon does not believe North Korea can put a warhead on the missile or reach the U.S. West Coast.
U.S. Forces Korea dispatched the guided missile destroyers from the South Korean port of Busan, a spokesman said without offering further details.
Local media quoted informed sources as saying the vessels with sophisticated radar will monitor the launch, which Pyongyang has said is planned for April 4-8. South Korea also plans to dispatch one of its missile-intercepting destroyers closer to the launch date, officials have said.
Japan deployed two missile-intercepting vessels to waters off its west coast at the weekend and another with sophisticated radar off its Pacific coast.
The North Korean rocket is supposed to drop booster stages to the east and west of Japan. Government officials said Tokyo is poised to shoot down debris that poses a threat to its public.
Rear Admiral James Kelly, Commander of U.S. Forces Japan, told reporters that Japan had nothing to fear from the launch.
North Korea, which has threatened to restart its plant that makes arms-grade plutonium if the United Nations punishes it for the launch, made a new threat, saying it might strike South Korea if it joins a U.S. plan to stop the flow of weapons of mass destruction called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
“(Should the South Korean government) participate in the ‘PSI’ ... the DPRK (North Korea) will consider this as a declaration of a war and promptly take a resolute countermeasure against it,” the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted a government agency spokesman as saying.
South Korean officials have said Seoul was considering joining PSI, a Bush administration plan where countries try to halt cargoes of suspected WMD materials such as ballistic missiles from the North.
North Korea has installed the completed three-stage rocket on a launch pad at its Musudan-ri missile base on the east coast but it was unclear what was at the top of the rocket, the Institute for Science and International Security said at the weekend based on an analysis of satellite imagery.
North Korea has said the launch is for the peaceful purpose of sending a satellite into orbit, while the United States, South Korea and Japan see it as a disguised test of the Taepodong-2 missile and a violation of U.N. sanctions.
The three have said they want the U.N. Security Council to punish the North for the launch but analysts see China, a veto-wielding permanent council member and the closest the North has to a major ally, blocking new sanctions and reluctant to call for tighter enforcement of existing ones.
Japan is considering tightening its unilateral sanctions on North Korea, Kyodo news agency reported. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he opposes a military response to the launch.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Lee said he also does not want to punish Pyongyang by ending a joint business park just north of their heavily militarized border in Kaesong or cutting humanitarian aid because that could hurt separate nuclear disarmament talks and Seoul’s goal of peaceful unification.
“For us to go the other way, taking a harder stance, I don’t think that would necessarily be helpful in achieving this ultimate objective,” Lee said.
North Korea, which has stranded South Korean workers at the factory park three times in recent weeks by not allowing them to cross the border, has detained a South Korean employee there on suspicion of criticizing the communist state’s political system, a South Korean Unification Ministry spokeswoman said.
North Korea is expected to start fuelling the rocket this week, starting a process experts said takes three to four days to prepare it for launch. U.S. spy satellites can watch the moves at the Musudan-ri missile base.
Investors said the impending launch has not cast much of a shadow, for now, over trading this week in Seoul.
“They will worry about that once the rocket is launched,” said Kim Joong-hyun, a Goodmorning Shinhan Securities analyst.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun, Jack Kim and Rhee So-eui in Seoul and Anthony Boadle in Washington and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Editing by Jeremy Laurence