- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea reminded the U.S. on Monday that it has nuclear weapons and warned it will strike back if attacked, as a U.S. destroyer continued to trail a North Korean cargo ship suspected of carrying illicit weapons.

The Kang Nam, previously involved in weapons shipments, is the first vessel monitored under new U.N. sanctions adopted after the North’s nuclear test last month. It could become a test case for interception of North Korean ships at sea — something Pyongyang has said it would consider an act of war.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. is ready to cope with “any contingencies” amid reports the North appears to be preparing for a long-range missile test planned sometime around July 4, the Independence Day holiday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered additional protections for Hawaii as a precaution.

The U.N. sanctions — punishment for an underground nuclear test North Korea conducted May 25 — firm up an earlier arms embargo against North Korea and authorize ship searches in an attempt to thwart the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

The Kang Nam appeared headed to Myanmar via Singapore, the South Korean news network YTN reported Sunday, citing an unidentified intelligence source in South Korea.

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.

On Monday, North Korea’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper called it “nonsense” to say the country is a threat to the U.S. The paper also warned it is prepared to strike back if attacked.

“As long as our country has become a proud nuclear power, the U.S. should take a correct look at whom it is dealing with,” its said in commentary. “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 Rodong Sinmun also denounced Obama’s recent pledge to defend and protect South Korea — even promising to keep Seoul “under the U.S. nuclear umbrella” — as an attempt to attack the North with atomic bombs.

North Korea calls its nuclear program a deterrent against the U.S., which Pyongyang accuses of plotting an attack. The U.S., which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, has said it has no such intentions and no nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

But Obama said the U.S. is prepared for any North Korean provocation.

“This administration — and our military — is fully prepared for any contingencies,” Obama said Friday during an interview with CBS News’ “The Early Show” to be broadcast Monday.

“I don’t want to speculate on hypotheticals,” Obama said. “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.”

Washington is considering sending former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China to persuade Beijing to enforce the U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said Monday, citing an unidentified high-level diplomatic source.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm the report.

China is the North’s biggest source of food, fuel and diplomatic support, and analysts have said the success of the U.N. sanctions depends on how aggressively Beijing implements them.

The Kang Nam left a North Korean port Wednesday and was being tracked by an American destroyer, two U.S. officials said Thursday. One official said it was uncertain what the ship was carrying but that it had been involved in weapons shipments before. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence.

A senior U.S. military official told the Associated Press on Friday that the Japan-based USS John S. McCain was relatively close to the North Korean vessel but had no orders to intercept it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Japanese Defense Ministry said Monday it did not have firsthand information about the two ships’ whereabouts.

The U.S. ship, a guided missile destroyer, is named after the grandfather and father of U.S. Sen. John McCain.

Sen. McCain said Sunday that 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.

“I think we should board it. 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,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report from Tokyo.

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