Japan, South Korea and American military forces in the region were braced Thursday for a potential launch by North Korea of a banned long-range ballistic missile.
A Japanese government source said satellite imagery obtained over the past several days indicated a launch may be a week away.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Thursday it believes an “abrupt” launch is likely but cautioned that the North had not yet declared a no-sail zone off its shores.
The Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet, which operates some of the world’s most advanced missile defense ships, said it was aware of South Korea’s announcement and was monitoring developments.
Six U.S. ballistic missile defense ships are currently deployed to Japan, a number that will grow to seven later this year.
The U.S. also operates two radars attuned to missile launches. One is located at Shariki, Aomori Prefecture, and the other is at Kyogamisaki, Kyoto Prefecture.
These allow the U.S. to track launches, said 7th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Lauren Cole.
She said the U.S. and its allies Japan and South Korea operate a range of defenses, including interceptors that can shoot down long-range missiles.
“The successful defense of the U.S. and our allies from unanticipated ballistic missile threats requires detailed planning, precision ship stationing and lightning-quick reactions,” she said.
The Japanese government source said launch preparations appear to be underway at North Korea’s Dongchang-ri launch site in the northwest.
The developments come as the United Nations Security Council considers tightening sanctions on North Korea following its detonation of a nuclear device on Jan. 6. Nuclear work by Pyongyang and the development of mid- and long-range rockets are banned under Security Council resolutions.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with senior Chinese government officials in Beijing and urged them to lean hard on North Korea.
“With all due respect, more significant and impactful sanctions were put against Iran, which did not have a nuclear weapon, than against North Korea, which does,” he said.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing supports punishing North Korea but said any measures must not fuel tensions.
U.S. officials are believed to advocate a ban on civilian flights to and from North Korea and sealing off its ability to conduct trade. They note that the majority of North Korea’s contact with the outside world is via China.
Pyongyang last fired off a long-range ballistic missile in December 2012, during what it said was a satellite launch.
In September, the director of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration said the agency was “pushing forward at a final phase the development of a new Earth observation satellite for weather forecasting,” according to a report by the state Korean Central News Agency.
Information from Kyodo added