The U.S. military is readying various homeland and foreign-deployed defense systems to potentially counter North Korea's anticipated strategic ballistic missile trial launch, the Washington Times reported on Wednesday.
More than seven months after North Korea's unsuccessful attempt to send a long-range rocket into space, new satellite images of the Dongchang-ri missile launch complex reveal apparent serious preparations for another missile trial. The Stalinist state could be ready to launch a missile as soon as mid-December, according to experts.
Should such an event appear to endanger friendly nations in the region or deployed U.S. forces, the Defense Department is preparing Aegis-equipped naval vessels with Standard Missile 3 interceptors and the homeland Ground-based Midcourse Defense system for a possible intercept attempt. Orbital, land, and sea-based detection systems are also being prepped to identify a possible missile firing.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea are keeping close tabs on Dongchang-ri, which is equipped to launch long-range missiles. An unidentified U.S. official told the Times the preparations at the missile complex look like "a replay of the April launch, hopefully with the same success."
During the last launch effort, the Unha 3 rocket broke apart shortly after leaving the ground. Despite the high-profile failure and evident demonstration that Pyongyang is not close to wielding an ICBM capability, the U.N. Security Council condemned the launch as a breach of its edict to the pariah country to not use ballistic missile technology.
Pyongyang signaled last month it was ready to carry out new launches when it said it would "strengthen missile capabilities in every way" to counter a new U.S.-South Korea ballistic missile accord. North Korea also claims the right to continue attempting to send satellites into space via rockets that have clear ballistic missile applications.
Though recent satellite photographs reveal the presence of new oxidizer tanks and trucks, and more people, U.S. intelligence has not yet seen a missile brought to the launch platform, an anonymous source told CNN.
Issue expert Toshimitsu Shigemura in an interview with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said he sees a "very high possibility that North Korea will go ahead with a launch, in spite of any protests or warnings that the international community might make in advance."
"We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il and his son and heir will want to stage some major events to mark that event, said Shigemura, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Longtime North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il died on Dec. 17, 2011. He was replaced by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
"[The younger] Kim has had a difficult first year as leader and he really needs a victory. Being able to launch a missile to mark his father's death would be an impressive way of doing that," according to Shigemura.
Arms Control Association fellow Greg Thielmann, however, suggested Pyongyang might be seeking to raise fears of a missile launch to strengthen its international position, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
"I believe it is technically possible for North Korea to again attempt to launch a multistage, Unha 3-type rocket during the December-January time frame, but I have my doubts it will happen," he said. The Unha 3 rocket is a modified version of the North's Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile.
"There are political reasons that North Korea would want South Korea and the United States to believe a test was imminent," according to Thielmann. "It would enhance Pyongyang's prestige and potentially serve as political leverage."
Given the failure in April, the North is anticipated to do everything it can to ensure a more technically successful follow-up missile test.
However, David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists in a web post questioned whether North Korea has had enough time to correct all of the technical problems that led to the April embarrassment.
Separately, the South Korean Dong a-Ilbo newspaper on Thursday reported that a team of Obama administration officials made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang in late summer to urge the regime to refrain from any hostile actions, according to a Yonhap summary.
One of the U.S. officials on the trip was reportedly a member of the White House National Security Council. "Chances are high that the U.S. sought to curb North Korea from taking military provocations and offered some measures in return," an anonymous international relations insider told the newspaper.
The White House declined to comment on the news report.