Two U.S. Navy destroyers, including one that is capable of intercepting missiles, were moved out of a South Korean port Monday amid expectations that North Korea may launch a rocket over the Pacific Ocean by the end of the week.
The repositioning of the ships marked the latest in a series of military and diplomatic maneuvers between Washington and the government in Pyongyang, although U.S. officials have said there is no plan to strike the North Korean rocket.
The pending launch has emerged as an early foreign policy test of the Obama administration, which hopes to restart talks to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea insists that the launch is intended only to put a civilian satellite into space. But U.S. officials say Pyongyang’s real goal is to test intercontinental ballistic missile technology that could someday be used to carry a warhead and possibly reach the U.S. coastline.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that the United States would not fire on the rocket unless it appeared to be headed for U.S. territory.
“If we had an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii . . . we might consider it,” Gates said in a television interview on Fox News. “But I don’t think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point.”
Lt. Matt Galan, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, confirmed that the destroyers McCain and Chafee both left port in Busan, South Korea, on Monday, but he declined to discuss their mission or destination. Galan said only that the McCain was armed with missile-tracking and interception capability.
Japan has also indicated that it would be prepared to fire on the North Korean rocket if it appeared that debris might land on its soil.
Recent satellite imagery shows that North Korea has finished assembling the rocket, a Taepodong 2, on a launch pad on the country’s eastern coastline. Pyongyang has said it intends to launch the rocket between April 4 and 8.
U.S. and other Western analysts fear that North Korea’s leaders may be pursuing the ability to mount a nuclear warhead atop such a missile.
Gates said the U.S. believed that “that’s their long-term intent,” but he noted that he was skeptical they would be able to do so yet. He also said he did not believe that North Korea’s missile was able to reach Alaska or the West Coast.
North Korea experts have described the launch as an effort by Pyongyang to recapture Washington’s attention at a time when the Obama administration is focused on the global economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan.
Stalled negotiations between North Korea and other nations center on providing North Korea with badly needed food and fuel supplies in exchange for steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned that North Korea would face consequences if it carried out the launch, which U.S. officials say would violate a United Nations ban. But it is not clear what diplomatic steps the U.S. is prepared to take. U.S. officials met with representatives from South Korea and Japan to discuss the matter Friday.