The chief of U.S. Pacific Command warned North Korea on Thursday not to launch a long-range missile this month in violation of international law, saying it would be destabilizing for the region.
"We encourage the leadership in North Korea to consider what they're doing here and the implications on the overall security environment on the Korean Peninsula as well as in Asia," said Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear III.
North Korea announced that it will launch a "satellite" sometime between Monday and Dec. 22 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jung-il, who died Dec. 17.
The upcoming launch is the secretive communist nation's second attempt in eight months. A launch in April ended when the rocket broke apart over the Pacific.
Western nations have said what North Korea claims are satellite launches are actually ballistic missile tests, since the same technology applies. The U.N. has banned North Korea from conducting such tests.
But, "If North Korean officials are convinced that this is something they want to do, there is very little the outside world can do," said David Wright, co-director of the global security program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
North Korea has carried out at least three other failed launches over the past decade.
As the North Koreans forged ahead with their latest planned launch, the U.S. could only monitor the situation.
This week, the U.S. dispatched several ships to the region in response – a move to reassure allies, U.S. officials said.
"Of course, in my role as the [Pacific Command] commander, my No. 1 priority is to ensure that we have properly reassured our allies and that we have properly defended our own homeland, and we will position our assets necessary to do that," said Adm. Locklear.
On Thursday, Japan deployed a ballistic missiles battery to intercept anything headed toward its mainland, and dispatched three destroyers to waters the missile could travel over, Reuters reported.
The planned launch has heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, which already has been on edge due to various territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas.
Regional experts believe North Korea is attempting a new launch so soon after its last failure to consolidate domestic support for its young new leader, Kim Jung-un, son of Kim Jung-il and grandson of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.
Mr. Wright said it's unclear what can stop the North Koreans from continuing to conduct launches in violation of international law as long as they can afford to do so.
"Their launch is sort of like a 'Hail Mary' pass in football," he said. "They've got little to lose if it fails, but if it succeeds, then it's great PR."
In addition, former CIA official Robert Sutter, an international affairs professor at George Washington University, noted that diplomatic efforts to engage North Korea are "at an impasse."
He noted that the U.S. and North Korea last year had reached a deal to exchange humanitarian aid for Pyongyang's halting its uranium enrichment program. But the deal was scuttled with Kim Jung-il's death.
"It's an old problem that is getting worse," said Mr. Sutter.
Specialists on the subject and officials said the North Koreans likely will continue to improve their launch capabilities.
"I think that they have progressively gained better technology over time, and they have progressively gained that through a number of methods over a number of years and decades," said Adm. Locklear.
"To the degree that they will be more successful than they were last time in such a short period of time I can't tell you how they assess that," he said. "Should they choose to go ahead with it, we'll just have to see how it goes."
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