WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is moving a sea-based radar platform closer to North Korea to track possible missile launches, a Pentagon official said Monday, in the latest step meant to deter the North and reassure South Korea and Japan that the U.S. is committed to their defense.
The sea-based X-band radar, a self-propelled system resembling an oil rig, is heading toward the Korean peninsula from Pearl Harbor, the official said. The John S. McCain, a guided missile destroyer capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, also is being sent to the region, said another Defense Department official.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing ship movements.
On Sunday, the Pentagon sent two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to Osan Air Base in South Korea from Japan.
The moves come amid heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula as the North has issued nearly daily threats over recently imposed United Nations sanctions and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that the Stalinist regime calls "an unpardonable and heinous provocation and an open challenge."
The Pentagon's decision to send only two fighters appeared to reflect a delicate balance, seeking to demonstrate American resolve without provoking a confrontation with North Korea. Last week, the U.S. military flew B-2 Spirit stealth aircraft to carry out dummy bombing drills over South Korea.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the F-22s were on "static display" at Osan as part of the monthlong military exercises and "to provide South Korean senior leaders with an orientation to the aircraft, which are an advanced capability that is available for the defense of South Korea."
The flights Sunday were the fourth time that F-22s, one of the Air Force's most advanced fighters, have deployed to South Korea, the Pentagon said
The U.S. has had a land-based version of the X-band radar in northern Japan since 2006 that can track North Korean missile launches, and it recently announced plans to install a second radar in central Japan to improve monitoring of missile launches toward Hawaii and Guam. But the latter system is not due to be operational for at least several months, Defense officials say.
The latest U.S. moves came as North Korea announced the appointment of a 74-year-old economics expert as prime minister. The naming of Pak Pong Ju, who served as prime minister for four years ending in 2007, followed by a day the North's declaration that economic reform and nuclear weapons development would be two mainstays of the regime.
Observers speculated that the naming of Pak was meant to show the government's determination to strengthen the economy of the impoverished nation, which is beset by periodic food shortages. But the pledge to reform the economy was matched by leader Kim Jong Un's declaration Sunday at a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party central committee that the North's controversial nuclear weapons program was a "treasure" that would not be abandoned or traded for "billions of dollars."
The North has been widely condemned for its nuclear ambitions. After successfully launching a three-stage rocket in December and testing a nuclear warhead Feb. 12, it was slapped with the additional sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. The measures were approved by the regime's chief ally, China, as well as the United States.
In defiance of the sanctions and the military exercises, the North first announced that it was annulling the cease-fire between the Koreas, then said it was prepared to attack "all U.S. military bases in the Asia Pacific region," and finally declared that a "state of war" existed between North and South Korea.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has pledged to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea if Kim's regime abandons its nuclear ambitions, called Monday for her nation's military to respond powerfully if the North makes any threatening moves.
Despite the North's threats, Seoul residents resumed their routines Monday with little sign of anxiety.
"It's a regular event. I don't feel so moved about it," Seo Hwan-seok, a 21-year-old army cadet on a short leave, said at the bustling Seoul train station. "Within the military, there has been a moderate amount of additional training on the issue. But I don't think the war's going to break out. I joke about it with my peers."
The South's military has not delayed leaves for soldiers.
Nor do investors seem overly concerned. The South Korean stock market's Kospi index rose throughout last week before dipping slightly Monday.
"The issue of North Korean threats has been a continuous one," said Seo Dong-pill, chief strategist at IBK securities. "The investors have developed a tolerance to North Korean threats. Such events just don't make people overreact. "
Times staff writer Cloud reported from Washington and special correspondent Choi from Seoul.