Video: July missile test expected

NBC News and news services
updated 6/19/2009 3:54:14 PM ET 2009-06-19T19:54:14

North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons could spawn a destabilizing arms race in Asia that would threaten world security, South Korea's president warned Friday.

"North Korea pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities is a threat, and of course this will tempt others in the region, thereby threatening global peace and security as well," President Lee Myung-bak told a reception at his residence.

Lee, who spoke a day after returning from the United States where he met President Barack Obama, also warned against the destructive potential of nuclear weapons as well as possible proliferation.

"If such nuclear technology falls into the wrong hands our everyday lives will be filled with continuous fear and anxiety," he told business and economic leaders who had participated in a two-day event in Seoul sponsored by the World Economic Forum.

Lee's comments highlighted two key worries about North Korea's atomic ambitions, namely that countries such as Japan and South Korea might move to develop their own arsenals if North Korea's program is not stopped and that the North may sell its technology to others.

His remarks came as the United States says it has deployed anti-missile defenses around Hawaii, following reports that North Korea is preparing to fire its most advanced ballistic missile in that direction to coincide with the U.S. Independence Day holiday next month.

Last week, the communist regime vowed to bolster its nuclear arsenal and threatened war to protest U.N. sanctions in the wake of its May 25 nuclear test, the country's second. It conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, and there are suspicions it is preparing for a third.

Boosting defenses
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that the military has set up additional defenses around Hawaii, consisting of a ground-based mobile missile system and a radar system nearby. Together they could shoot an incoming missile in midair.

Gates spoke after Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported that North Korea might test-fire a Taepodong-2 missile with a range of up to 4,000 miles, sometime around the U.S. Independence Day holiday on July 4.

Yomiuri said the missile, which could be launched from North Korea's Tongchang-ri site, would fly over Japan but would not be able to reach Hawaii, which is about 4,500 miles from the Korean peninsula.

North Korea test-fired a similar long-range missile on July 4 three years ago, but it failed seconds after liftoff.

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A spokesman for the Japanese Defense Ministry declined to comment on Yomiuri's report, which cited an analysis by Japan's Defense Ministry and intelligence gathered by U.S. reconnaissance satellites.

South Korea's government also remained silent on the report, but made a general appeal to North Korea to follow international norms.

"We hope that North Korea, first of all (will) give up nuclear ambitions and abide by the agreement that we made in 1992 — that is, a basic agreement for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo told reporters.

The sanctions mandated by the U.N. Security Council resolution on North Korea call on all 192 U.N. member states to inspect vessels on the high seas — with the owner country's approval — if they believe the cargo contains banned weapons.

First test case for sanctions
In what would be the first test case for the sanctions, the U.S. military has begun tracking a North Korean-flagged ship, Kang Nam, which left a port in North Korea on Wednesday, two U.S. officials said.

The ship, which may be carrying illicit weapons, was in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of China on Thursday, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence.

Video: U.S. continues to track North Korean boat It was uncertain what the Kang Nam was carrying, but it has been involved in weapons proliferation before, one of the officials said. However, no-one has suggested that it may be carrying nuclear material.

U.S. military officials also predict the situation could come to a head over the next couple of days when the Kang Nam is expected to run out of fuel. Under the additional sanctions slapped on North Korea last week, the U.N. could ask the port country to withhold fuel until the ship could be boarded and searched.

It was not clear yet whether the USS John S. McCain destroyer would confront the Kang Nam and ask the crew for permission to board and search the ship. The U.N. resolution does not permit nor would the U.S. military forcibly board the ship, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. Instead the McCain would continue to follow the ship until it had to put into port.

Efforts aimed at angering U.S., Japan
It is believed that the latest maneuvers by the North Koreans — preparations for missile tests, the launch of this particular ship knowing full well the United States would closely track it, and threats that if the ship is boarded by force North Korea would consider it an "act of war" — are all designed to stir up as much angst as they can in the United States and North Korea's neighbors, especially Japan.

The problem is, according to one senior Pentagon official, "since we don know exactly what their intentions are, we have to treat each incident as a potential serious threat."

Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs are centerpieces of the regime's catalog of weapons of mass destruction.

On Thursday, the independent International Crisis Group said the North is believed to have between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, phosgene, blood agents and sarin. These weapons can be delivered with ballistic missiles and long-range artillery and are "sufficient to inflict massive civilian casualties on South Korea."

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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