The U.S. military is prepared to shoot down a North Korean missile or rocket if President Obama should give the order, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command said Thursday.
"If a missile leaves the launch pad we'll be prepared to respond upon direction of the president," Adm. Timothy Keating told ABC News.
North Korea announced earlier this week that it was preparing to shoot a communication satellite into orbit as part of it space program. The U.S., South Korea and other neighboring countries believe the launch may be a cover for a missile test-fire, saying the action would trigger international sanctions.
"There's equipment moving up there that would indicate the preliminary stages of preparation for a launch," Keating said. "So I'd say it's more than less likely."
North Korea lashed out at critics warning it not to test a long-range missile on Thursday, saying that it would punish those trying to disrupt its plan to send what it calls a satellite into orbit.
Keating said the U.S. military is ready to respond to the missile launch with at least five different systems: a naval destroyer, Aegis cruiser, radar system, space-based system and ground-based interceptor, ABC News reported.
"Should it look like it's not a satellite launch — that it's something other than a satellite launch — we'll be ready to respond."
The latest harsh words from Pyongyang came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced plans to send her new envoy on North Korea to meet with negotiators in Asia trying to revive stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
Clinton later spoke by telephone with her South Korean counterpart, Yu Myung-hwan, to discuss the North's missile issue and informed him of her envoy's trip to Seoul, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said without elaborating.
On Thursday, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of (North) Korea accused South Korea of "trumpeting about 'sanctions"' against its satellite launch, saying outsiders will know "what will soar in the air in the days ahead."
"If the puppet warmongers infringe upon our inviolable dignity even a bit ... we will not only punish the provokers but reduce their stronghold to debris," the committee said in a statement carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim Myong Gil, minister to the North's U.N. mission in New York, said in Atlanta where he was attending an academic forum that his country would implement the satellite launch "as scheduled." Asked about the timing, he told reporters Thursday they'll have to wait and see, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
Kim said North Korea bears the right to launch a satellite into space, and that the North's space program is not up for any negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. He also said the country is facing dire energy shortages and must develop nuclear power as a source of energy, the report said.
Analysts say the North's planned launch is seen as a bid for President Barack Obama's attention as international talks on its nuclear programs remained stalled for months and tensions with South Korea are at their highest level in a decade.
The launch of the Taepodong-2 will most likely take place around the first week in March, around the time of elections for the North's rubber-stamp parliament, said Rodger Baker, director of East Asia analysis at the global intelligence company STRATFOR.
The long-range Taepodong-2 missile is believed capable of reaching Alaska. Some experts think the North is preparing to test an advanced version that could reach the western continental U.S.
Baker said North Korea's missile capability is "fairly sophisticated" given the country's isolation and lack of access to technology.
"They are really good with short-range and anti-ship missiles, mostly those they've modified from Soviet and Chinese missiles," Baker told The Associated Press.
Clinton announced Thursday that envoy Stephen Bosworth would soon travel to the capitals of the four countries that have been working with Washington to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program — Russia, Japan, China and South Korea.
Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was named last week as the Obama administration's special representative for North Korea.
Asian and U.S. officials are looking at the best way "to deter this launch," said Christopher Hill, the top U.S diplomat for Asia. He dismissed North Korea's claims that it was preparing to conduct a satellite launch.
"It looks an awful lot like a missile launch, and the reason it looks a lot like a missile launch is because it essentially is a missile launch, whatever the payload," Hill told reporters in Washington. Considering the North's "opaqueness," coupled with its claims that it has weaponized plutonium, he said, "you can see why we have some very deep concerns about the missile launch."
South Korea's Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported Thursday that North Korea has built an underground fueling facility near its launch pad, making it harder for spy satellites to detect signs that a missile is being prepared for launch.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.