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.
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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 north 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.
"North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions, … skating very close to a dangerous line," Hagel said. "Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation."
The United States is "fully prepared to deal with any contingency, any action that North Korea may take or any provocation that they may instigate," Hagel said.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said data on North Korea’s capability to make a small warhead for a missile is classified.
"But they have conducted two nuclear tests," he said during an appearance with Hagel. "They have conducted several successful ballistic missile launches, and in the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the worst case. And that's why we're postured as we are today."
Hagel described North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as "unpredictable."
"As to should the American people be concerned about their safety and security, we have every capacity to deal with any action that North Korea would take to protect this country and the interests of this country and our allies," Hagel said.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that U.S. missile defenses are capable of stopping North Korean missile attacks on the continental United States, Hawaii, Guam, and regional bases in Asia.
Locklear said he would recommend shooting down any North Korean missile launches in the coming days that threatens the U.S. homeland or U.S. allies.
However, Locklear said he would not recommend downing a missile if it does not pose a threat. As Pacific commander, Locklear has the final say in ordering the use of missile defenses against foreign missiles.
Intelligence and warning indicators are expected to provide commanders with a sense of where the North Korean missiles are aimed. Without the indicators, sensors can quickly provide a flight path and landing point, Locklear said.
The four-star admiral said China is a critical player in reining in North Korea, noting: "I think that they could do more."
Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued a vague statement on Monday calling on states in the region not to create instability, a comment widely viewed as a rebuke of North Korea.
A state-controlled Chinese news outlet for the first time on Wednesday specifically criticized North Korea. The jingoistic Global Times, an official Communist Party-affiliated newspaper, stated in an editorial that whatever the cause for moves toward war on the Korean peninsula, "North Korea has overdone it."
The editorial then went on to criticize the United States as responsible for growing tensions along with South Korea. The editorial also accused Japan of exploiting the tensions as a way to develop its missile defenses.