President Barack Obama assured Americans in an interview broadcast Monday that the US is prepared for any move North Korea might make, amid reports that Pyongyang is planning a long-range missile test to follow up its provocative nuclear test last month.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered additional protection for Hawaii as a precaution, though experts say North Korea doesn’t yet have a ballistic missile that can reach Hawaii and has not mastered mounting a nuclear bomb on a long-range missile.
Still, North Korea declared itself a “proud nuclear power” and warned it will strike if provoked.
“It would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to think it can remain unhurt if it ignites the fuse of war on the Korean peninsula,” the country’s main Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary.
The U.S., which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, has said it has no such intentions.
Obama assured Americans that “this administration _ and our military _ is fully prepared for any contingencies.” His interview with CBS News’ “The Early Show” was taped Friday for broadcast Monday.
“I don’t want to speculate on hypotheticals,” Obama told CBS. “But I want ... to give assurances to the American people that the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted in terms of what might happen.”
A U.S. destroyer, meanwhile, was shadowing a North Korean cargo ship suspected of carrying illicit weapons.
The Kang Nam, accused of engaging in illicit trade in the past, appeared to be heading toward Myanmar, a South Korean intelligence official said Monday. He said the ship is believed to be transporting banned weapons. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the information.
Myanmar’s military government, which faces an arms embargo from the United States and the European Union, reportedly has bought weapons from the North in the past.
The Kang Nam is the first ship being tracked under new U.N. Security Council sanctions designed to punish the North for its defiant underground nuclear test last month. It could become a test case for the interception of North Korean ships at sea _ a move Pyongyang has said it would consider an act of war.
The sanctions require U.N. member states to inspect vessels believed to contain banned goods _ with the consent of the nation whose flag the ship is flying. The resolution also orders member states not to provide fuel and other supplies to North Korean ships suspected of carrying banned items.
However, North Korea is unlikely to allow any inspection of its cargo, making an interception impossible, said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank.
A Japan-based destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, was relatively close to the North Korean ship but had no orders to intercept it, a senior U.S. military official told The Associated Press on Friday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The ship is named after the grandfather and father of Senator John McCain. He said the U.S. should board the Kang Nam even without North Korean permission if hard evidence shows it is carrying missiles or other cargo in violation of U.N. resolutions.
“It’s going to contribute to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to rogue nations that pose a direct threat to the United States,” McCain said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Navy spokesman Cmdr. Ron Steiner said he could not comment on the warship’s activity. A Japanese Defense Ministry spokeswoman also declined to provide any details but said Japan and U.S. defense officials were monitoring the situation.
Japan’s Coast Guard, meanwhile, said it received a notice from North Korea’s maritime authority saying ships would be banned from the waters off the coast of northern North Korea and southeastern Russia between June 25 through July 10 “for military exercises.”
Coast Guard spokesman Go Nagai said the exercise wasn’t considered a threat to Japan’s national security.
Washington and North Korea’s neighbors scrambled to find a way to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula, with U.S. defense officials heading Monday to Beijing for talks with their Chinese counterparts.
Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy was en route to Beijing and was scheduled to continue on to Tokyo and Seoul later in the week for discussions about North Korea.