The U.S. military is tracking a North Korean ship that is thought to be carrying prohibited weapons, the first test of sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council in response to last month’s nuclear test and missile launches by the belligerent communist state.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen discussed the incident Thursday with reporters at the Pentagon without going into details.
But a senior Pentagon official confirmed that the U.S. is monitoring the North Korean ship Kang Nam, which it suspects is carrying weapons that the United Nations prohibits the North from exporting.
Mr. Gates also said he had sent a mobile missile defense system to Hawaii amid reports that the North is preparing another test of its long-range multistage rocket, the Taepodong 2. Its last test in April flopped.
The U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the final stages of their descent.
“We are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect Americans and American territory,” Mr. Gates said.
The U.S. Navy has been tracking the ship since it left a North Korean port on Wednesday, and will attempt to hail the ship and seek permission to board for inspection, the official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
“The U.N. resolution does not include an option for an opposed boarding or a noncompliant boarding,” Adm. Mullen said. “If we get to that point with a vessel we suspect has material which is unauthorized — that’s a report that goes back to the U.N.”
Security Council sanctions approved June 12 sharply restrict North Korea’s arms trade and authorize U.N. members to stop, inspect, seize and destroy prohibited items. The measure followed nuclear and missile tests by the North.
If the Kang Nam refuses to be boarded and inspected, the U.S. plans to track the vessel and press the country at its first port call to enforce the U.N. sanctions.
North Korea has said forced inspections on the high seas would be an act of war.
Hours after North Korea’s underground nuclear test in late May, the North test-launched three midrange ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to all of South Korea and much of Japan. The previous month, it tested a Taepodong-2 rocket, claiming it was a civilian satellite launch.
In conducting the tests, North Korea flouted more than a decade of efforts by the United States, South Korea and other nations in the region to establish a quasi-normal relationship with a nation known for its isolation, even as millions of its citizens die of malnutrition.
Some lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to designate North Korea as a terrorist nation, reversing a Bush administration concession to take the North off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“All North Korea did after we took them off that list was to use the flexibility that we gave them to reclaim the [financial] assets that had been frozen and use them to expedite their nuclear program,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “They’re basically slapping us in the face.”
U.S. intelligence officials say North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor almost identical to its own Yongbyon reactor, which is thought to have produced enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen atomic bombs.
Israel blew up the Syrian reactor before it was completed.