WASHINGTON The United States could intercept a North Korean missile launched toward U.S. territory with "high probability," the top U.S. commander for the Pacific region said on Thursday.
Speaking to a U.S. panel amid North Korean preparations for what Pyongyang has said will be a satellite launch in early April, U.S. Pacific Commander Timothy Keating and other senior officers stressed American capabilities without revealing intentions.
"We have a high probability," Keating, a U.S. Navy admiral, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when asked if U.S. forces could intercept a missile from North Korea.
North Korea has said it intends to launch a communications satellite between April 4 and 8, asserting it has the right to do so under its space program. Washington and its allies in Asia see the plan as a disguised long-range missile test.
The North's Taepodong-2 has a range that could take it to Alaska. But analysts do not expect the United States to intercept the rocket, a move Pyongyang has said it would consider an act of war.
Air Force General Kevin Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said the missile defense system the United States has been testing and partially deploying over the past decade was "ahead of North Korean capabilities."
"In the limited deployment capabilities that we have out today for the system, it is adequate to defend against what we believe the North Koreans could potentially put forward as a threat today," he told the hearing.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have said they see no difference between a satellite launch and a missile test.
"Even if there is a satellite launch on this, as the North Koreans just said it will be, it will help the technology of long-range missiles," Chilton added.
Japan's Kyodo news agency reported on Wednesday that Tokyo was clearing the way for the deployment of ballistic missile interceptors. North Korea stunned Tokyo with the launch of a rocket in 1998 that flew over Japan before dropping into the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea has said the first stage of the rocket would splash down in the Sea of Japan, while the second would land in the Pacific.
Army General Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, said the missile threat is serious because North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in 2006. Proliferation is also a worry, because the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sells missiles to support itself, he said.
A successful Taepodong-2 launch would go a long way toward "helping him proliferate that to other countries around the world and to be able to get cash back in order to put it back into regime survival," Sharp told the panel.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said on Tuesday it had completed a successful intercept test at a range in Hawaai of a mobile system designed to intercept short to medium range ballistic missiles.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Todd Eastham)