The Pentagon activated its new U.S. ground-based interceptor missile defense system, and officials announced yesterday that any long-range missile launch by North Korea would be considered a "provocative act."
Poor weather conditions above where the missile site was located by U.S. intelligence satellites indicates that an immediate launch is unlikely, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
However, intelligence officials said preparations have advanced to the point where a launch could take place within several days to a month.
Two Navy Aegis warships are patrolling near North Korea as part of the global missile defense and would be among the first sensors that would trigger the use of interceptors, the officials said yesterday.
The U.S. missile defense system includes 11 long-range interceptor missiles, including nine deployed at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The system was switched from test to operational mode within the past two weeks, the officials said.
One senior Bush administration official told The Washington Times that an option being considered would be to shoot down the Taepodong missile with responding interceptors.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added that any launch would be a serious matter and "would be taken with utmost seriousness and indeed a provocative act."
White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to comment when asked if shooting down a launched missile was being considered as an option.
President Bush had telephoned more than a dozen heads of state regarding North Korea's launch preparations, Mr. Snow said. He did not identify the leaders who were called by Mr. Bush.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. has made it clear to North Korea that the communist regime should abide by the missile-test ban it imposed in 1999 and reaffirmed in a pact with Japan in 2002.
"The United States has a limited missile defense system," Mr. Whitman said. He declined to say if the system is operational or whether it would be used.
"U.S. Northern Command continues to monitor the situation, and we are prepared to defend the country in any way necessary," said spokesman Michael Kucharek.
Any decision to shoot down a missile would be made at the highest command levels, which includes the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan and South Korea are trying to avert a launch.
"Even now, we hope that they will not do this," Mr. Koizumi said. "But if they ignore our views and launch a missile, then the Japanese government, consulting with the United States, would have to respond harshly."
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Bush administration is consulting with other Security Council members on how to respond to a Taepodong launch.
In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said North Korea's ambassador had been summoned and told any missile launch would result in "serious consequences."
U.S. intelligence officials said there are signs that the North Koreans recently began fueling the Taepodong with highly corrosive rocket fuel. Normally, when liquid fuel is loaded into missiles the missile must be fired within five to 10 days, or it must be de-fueled and the motors cleaned, a difficult and hazardous process.
The Taepodong was first tested in August 1998, and North Korea claimed that it was a space launch vehicle that orbited a satellite. U.S. intelligence officials said the last stage of the missile was powered but did not reach orbit. A new test would likely be a more advanced version.
"Our concerns about missile activity in North Korea are long-standing and well-documented," said Mr. Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman.
The test preparations began several weeks after the Bush administration imposed new rules on U.S. companies that prohibit American or foreign firms incorporated in the United States from flying North Korea's flag on merchant ships.
According to the Treasury Department, Korean War-era sanctions were loosened in 2000 in order to entice North Korea into abiding by the missile flight test ban.
One reason for the concerns about a launch is that North Korea has issued threatening statements through its official press and broadcast organs that it is ready to go to war with states such as Japan and the United States that impose economic sanctions.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.