The U.S. deployed two missile-interceptor ships from South Korea on Monday, days ahead of a North Korean rocket launch seen by many as a test of its longest-range missile.
The two U.S. destroyers were on a mission believed to monitor the North's rocket launch. The ships are equipped with Aegis radar, a system that enables the vessels to locate, track and shoot down missiles.
U.S. military spokesman Kim Yong-kyu said the ships would depart from the South Korean port of Busan, but declined to give details.
South Korea and Japan also dispatched missile destroyers to monitor the launch.
Click to view photos | Satellite image of the launch area
In addition to the long-range rocket, North Korea is preparing to launch a short- or medium-range missile, a Japanese newspaper reported Sunday.
The Sankei newspaper, citing several unnamed Japanese government sources, said the North is preparing to test-launch another missile from Wonsan, about 155 miles south of Musudan-ni. It said U.S., South Korean and Japanese intelligence analyses said the missile could be short or medium range.
The report said the North may conduct another missile test if the U.N. Security Council approves sanctions against it or if it cannot wrest concessions from the United States.
Japan's Defense Ministry declined to comment on the Sankei report. South Korea's Defense Ministry and National Intelligence Service — its main spy agency — said they couldn't immediately confirm the report.
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President Lee Myung-bak said South Korea opposes any military response to North Korea's planned launch of a rocket, while Washington's defense chief said the U.S. won't try to shoot it down.
The remarks by Lee and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appear to reflect concerns that any tough reaction could send tensions spiking out of control at a time when the communist regime is warning that even U.N. sanctions would prompt it to quit nuclear disarmament talks.
North Korea says it will launch a communications satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8 as part of its space development program. Regional powers, however, suspect the North is using the launch to test long-range missile technology.
South Korea, the U.S. and Japan have warned the North that if it goes ahead with the launch it could face international sanctions under a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting ballistic activity by Pyongyang.
Pyongyang has said sanctions would violate the spirit of agreements in nuclear disarmament talks, and said it would treat the pacts as null and void if punished for exercising its right to send a satellite into space.
In an interview with the Financial Times published Monday, Lee said all countries, including China and Russia, oppose the North's plans. But Lee stressed that he is against using military means as punishment.
"What I do oppose is to militarily respond to these kind of actions," Lee said, according to a transcript of the interview released by the presidential office.
Lee also ruled out shuttering a joint industrial complex in North Korea — widely seen as a source of hard currency for the impoverished nation — as punishment. He said he does not believe "taking a harder stance" would be helpful in achieving Seoul's ultimate objective of ridding the North of nuclear programs.
In Washington, Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the U.S. has no plans to try to intercept the North Korean rocket but might consider trying if an "aberrant missile" were headed to Hawaii "or something like that."
Still, Gates said the North's launch is a step toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead, and "a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile."
Commercial satellite imagery taken Sunday by DigitalGlobe clearly shows what appears to be a three-stage launch vehicle on the launch pad in Musudan-ni on North Korea's east coast, said Tim Brown, an analyst for globalsecurity.org.
However, it remains unclear whether the rocket is a long-range Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile or a space launch vehicle designed to carry a satellite, Brown said.
He noted that the service-level swing arms appear to be rotated away from the launch vehicle.
"The loading of liquid fuel from nearby fuel storage buildings and final check-out procedures could take place in the next few days," Brown said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.