- - Thursday, April 11, 2013

U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have identified the launch zone on North Korea’s east coast where Pyongyang’s military is set to fire a salvo of missiles that risk being shot down by U.S. missile defenses in the region.

The North Koreans recently began fueling two road-mobile Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles located along the east coast between the cities of Wonsan and Hamhung, according to intelligence officials.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in addition to the 2,500-mile-range Musudans the North Koreans could conduct test firings of several 620-mile-range Nodong missiles and shorter-range Scuds simultaneously as a way to thwart U.S. missile defenses.

Unlike earlier launches, the North Koreans are not expected to provide advance warning of the timing for the launches, such as announcing a sea and air closure zone, because of heightened U.S. and Japanese missile defenses.

The Pentagon has at least four missile-interceptor ships in the region equipped with SM-3 interceptors. Additionally, long-range interceptors based in Alaska and California are ready to counter any missiles fired toward the United States.

The SM-3 is capable of hitting some intermediate-range missiles but analysts say the interceptor would be stretching its capabilities in hitting a Musudan because of the high speeds of the missiles.

It could not be learned if the U.S. ground-based interceptors are capable of knocking out the last stages of a Musudan, which are believed to have enough range to reach the U.S. military hub of Guam, in the south Pacific.

“The United States and Japan are preparing to shoot down the missiles if they fly over Japanese territory or are aimed at U.S. bases in the region,” said one official.

The missile tests would be banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions passed after earlier long-range missile tests by North Korea.

However, the latest tests come amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula in a standoff between Pyongyang and the United States and South Korea.

North Korea is seeking acceptance as a nuclear weapons state after conducting its third underground nuclear tests Feb. 12.

The United States is refusing to acknowledge that status. The refusal has triggered unprecedented North Korean threats to fire long-range nuclear missiles at U.S. cities, military bases in Asia, and South Korea.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel canceled a planned U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile test for this week after China urged both Washington and Pyongyang to seek to tamp down tensions.

However, North Korea has not reciprocated. U.S. officials said a North Korean missile launch could take place any time from Wednesday to Monday—the anniversary of the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.

Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that the military has prepared contingencies for any North Korea provocation.

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