The United States says it has deployed anti-missile defenses around Hawaii, following reports that North Korea is preparing to fire its most advanced ballistic missile in that direction to coincide with the U.S. Independence Day holiday next month.
Last week, the communist regime vowed to bolster its nuclear arsenal and threatened war to protest U.N. sanctions in the wake of its May 25 nuclear test. It conducted its first nuclear test in April, and there are suspicions it is preparing for a third.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that the military has set up additional defenses around Hawaii, consisting of a ground-based mobile missile system and a radar system nearby. Together they could shoot an incoming missile in mid air.
"Without telegraphing what we will do, I would just say ... we are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect Americans and American territory," Gates told reporters in Washington.
Gates' comments come after Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported that North Korea might test fire a Taepodong-2 missile with a range of up to 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers), sometime around the U.S. holiday of Independence Day on July 4.
Yomiuri said the missile, which could be launched from North Korea's Tongchang-ri site, would fly over Japan but would not be able to reach Hawaii, which is about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) from the Korean peninsula.
North Korea test-fired a similar long-range missile on July 4 three years ago, but it failed seconds after liftoff.
A spokesman for the Japanese Defense Ministry declined to comment on Yomiuri's report, which cited an analysis by Japan's Defense Ministry and intelligence gathered by U.S. reconnaissance satellites.
South Korea's government also remained silent on the report, but made a general appeal to North Korea to follow international norms.
"We hope that North Korea, first of all (will) give up nuclear ambitions and abide by the agreement that we made in 1992 -- that is, a basic agreement for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo told reporters.
The sanctions mandated by the U.N. Security Council resolution on North Korea call on all 192 U.N. member states to inspect vessels on the high seas — with the owner country's approval — if they believe the cargo contains banned weapons.
In what would be the first test case for the sanctions, the U.S. military has begun tracking a North Korean-flagged ship, Kang Nam, which left a port in North Korea on Wednesday, two U.S. officials said.
The ship, which may be carrying illicit weapons, was in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of China on Thursday, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence.
It was uncertain what the Kang Nam was carrying, but it has been involved in weapons proliferation before, one of the officials said.
Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs are centerpieces of the regime's catalog of weapons of mass destruction.
On Thursday, the independent International Crisis Group said the North is believed to have between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, phosgene, blood agents and sarin. These weapons can be delivered with ballistic missiles and long-range artillery and are "sufficient to inflict massive civilian casualties on South Korea."