WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States is monitoring a North Korean ship for weapons and has deployed anti-missile assets to the Pacific in case Pyongyang launches more missiles, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The U.S. Navy is monitoring a vessel called Kang Nam at sea under new U.N. sanctions that bar North Korea from exporting weapons, including missile parts and nuclear materials, they said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ship based in North Korea became “a subject of interest” after leaving a North Korean port on Wednesday.
They declined to say what the ship, now in international waters, might be carrying.
The Kang Nam is the first ship to be monitored under the U.N. sanctions adopted last week after Pyongyang raised tensions by test-firing missiles, restarting a plant to produce arms-grade plutonium and conducting a nuclear test.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to discuss specifics at a briefing, but he stressed the U.N. resolution would allow the U.S. Navy to search a ship only with its flag country’s consent.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington was also concerned about the possibility of North Korea firing off more missiles, possibly in the direction of Hawaii.
“We’re obviously watching the situation in the North with respect to missile launches very closely, and we do have some concerns if they were to launch a missile to the West in the direction of Hawaii,” he said.
“Without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say we are in a good position — should it become necessary — to protect American territory.”
Gates said he had directed the redeployment of anti-missile assets in the Pacific region, including advanced radar and other defensive systems capable of bringing down medium-range ballistic missiles as a precaution.
North Korea in recent weeks has raised tensions in North Asia, responsible for one-sixth of the global economy, with missile launches, threats to attack the South and the May 25 nuclear test that led to U.N. sanctions.
Pyongyang has warned ships to stay away from waters off its eastern city of Wonsan until the end of the month, according to a Japan Coast Guard spokesman, which could indicate a possible missile test.
The North fired a barrage of short-range missiles off its east coast just after its nuclear test in May.
JULY 4 LAUNCH - REPORT
Separately, North Korea may be looking to test-fire a long-range missile over Japan toward Hawaii between July 4 and July 8, Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper cited a Defense Ministry analysis as saying.
Pyongyang threatened to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile if the U.N. Security Council did not apologize for punishing it for an April rocket launch, widely seen as a disguised missile test that violated U.N. resolutions.
The rocket launched in April flew about 3,000 km (1,860 miles), well short of the 4,800 km needed to reach the Alaskan coast. The rocket, called the Taepodong-2, is designed to fly as far as U.S. territory.
Analysts say the North’s defiant moves are aimed at building internal support for leader Kim Jong-il, who appears to be laying the foundation for his youngest son to take over. The 67-year-old leader of Asia’s only communist dynasty is believed to have suffered a stroke last year.
North Korea responded to fresh U.N. sanctions to punish it for its nuclear test by saying at the weekend it would start a uranium enrichment program, which experts said could give it a second route to an atomic bomb, and weaponise all its plutonium, believed to be enough for at least six bombs.
Many weapons experts believe the North is years away from being able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to mount on a warhead and needs several more nuclear tests to develop one.
North Korea has several thousand tonnes of chemical weapons it can mount on missiles that could be used in a rapid strike against the South, according to a report released on Thursday by the International Crisis Group.
The report from the prestigious nongovernmental organization said the consensus view is the North’s army possess about 2,500 to 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons that include mustard gas, sarin and other deadly nerve agents.
“If there is an escalation of conflict and if military hostilities break out, there is a risk that they could be used. In conventional terms, North Korea is weak and they feel they might have to resort to using those,” said Daniel Pinkston, the ICG’s representative on Seoul.
The North has been working on chemical weapons for decades and can deliver them through long-range artillery trained on the Seoul area — home to about half of South Korea’s 49 million people — and via missiles that could hit all of the country.
“The stockpile does not appear to be increasing but is already sufficient to inflict massive civilian casualties on South Korea,” the ICG report said.
Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Editing by Anthony Boadle