(CNN) — Countries in northeast Asia remained on edge Wednesday amid warnings from U.S. and South Korean officials that North Korea could carry out a missile test at any point.
Japan has deployed missile defense systems around Tokyo, some Chinese tour groups have canceled visits to North Korea, and U.S. radars and satellites are trained on an area of the Korean east coast where Kim Jong Un’s regime is believed to have prepared mobile ballistic missiles for a possible test launch.
After weeks of belligerent threats and provocative gestures from Pyongyang, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is fragile.
Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, said Tuesday that he couldn’t recall a time of greater tension in the region since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s.
Before the two controversial long-range rocket launches that North Korea carried out last year, the reclusive regime gave ample warning to the world. But it is keeping everyone guessing about what it might do this time around.
“According to intelligence obtained by our side and the U.S., the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at a parliamentary hearing Wednesday, according to the semiofficial South Korean news agency Yonhap.
He said the missile in question is a Musudan, an untested weapon that he said has a range as far as 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). That would mean it could reach as far as Guam, a Western Pacific territory that is home to U.S. naval and air bases and where the United States recently said it was placing missile defense systems.
After any launch, U.S. satellites and radars in the region would be able to calculate the trajectory of missiles within minutes and quickly conclude whether they are on a test path headed for open ocean or potentially headed for land areas such as Japan.
The United States and Japan would then have to decide whether to try to shoot the missiles down, U.S. officials say.
A launch without warning?
Yun said he was basing his assessment on South Korean and U.S. intelligence. On Tuesday, a U.S. official said that the American government believes a test launch could happen at any time and without North Korea issuing a standard notice to commercial aviation and maritime shipping that would warn planes and vessels to stay away from the missile’s path.
The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information, cautioned that most of the information comes from satellite imagery, so it’s impossible to reach a definitive conclusion because the United States cannot gather information on the ground.
He said the launch could be “imminent” but also cautioned that the United States “simply doesn’t know.” Based on what the United States has seen, the belief is that the missiles have received their liquid fuel and are ready for launch.
Speaking at a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, Locklear said the U.S. military would not want to shoot down a North Korean missile whose trajectory would send it into the open sea. But he said if the missile’s path appeared to threaten a U.S. ally, such as Japan, interceptor missiles could be used to try to bring it down.
Japan’s deployment of missile defenses in Tokyo follows similar measures taken ahead of the North’s rocket launches last year.
Since the U.N. Security Council voted last month to impose new sanctions on Kim’s regime over the latest North Korean nuclear test, Pyongyang has kept up a steady flow of words and acts that could give the impression of a nation heading inexorably toward conflict.
On Tuesday, it advised foreigners in South Korea to secure shelter or evacuate the country in case of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the latest in a string of ominous warnings.
It also kept more than 50,000 of its workers from an industrial complex jointly operated with South Korea, which had been a key symbol of cooperation between the two countries.
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