SEOUL, South Korea – Japanese, South Korean and U.S. missile-destroying ships set sail to monitor North Korea's imminent rocket launch, as Pyongyang stoked tensions Monday by detaining a South Korean worker for allegedly denouncing the North's political system. North Korea says it will send a communications satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan suspect the regime is using the launch to test long-range missile technology, and warn it would face U.N. sanctions under a Security Council resolution banning the country from any ballistic activity.
Click to view photos | Satellite image of the launch area
North Korea has threatened to quit international talks on its nuclear disarmament if punished with sanctions. The communist regime's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reiterated that warning Sunday, saying the talks will "completely collapse" if taken to the Security Council.
Further heightening tensions on the divided peninsula, North Korean authorities detained a South Korean worker at a joint industrial zone in the North for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang's political system and inciting female northern workers to flee the country.
North Korea assured Seoul it would guarantee the man's safety during an investigation, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North.
The detention came as two American journalists working for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture remained in North Korean custody after allegedly crossing the border illegally from China on March 17.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said early Tuesday that the two reporters would be indicted and tried for illegal entry and "hostile acts." The report did not elaborate on what "hostile acts" the journalists allegedly committed and did not say when a trial might take place.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Monday that a Swedish diplomat met with the detained journalists, Euna Lee and Lisa Ling, individually over the weekend. Sweden represents the U.S. in consular affairs in Pyongyang since the U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement expressing concern about the North's action against the reporters. "We call on the North Korean government to explain the circumstances of the detention of these two journalists," said Bob Dietz, the groups Asia program coordinator.
South Korea has only been an observer to the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led program aimed at halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but Seoul officials recently said they were considering fully joining the program after the North's rocket launch.
Seoul's participation would be treated as "a declaration of a war," Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
In preparation for the rocket launch, Japan deployed Patriot missiles around Tokyo and sent warships armed with interceptor missiles to the waters between Japan and the Korean peninsula as a precaution, defense officials said.
Two U.S. destroyers anchored at a South Korean port after holding military exercises with the South Korean navy also were believed to have departed for waters near North Korea to monitor the rocket launch.
The USS McCain and the USS Chafee left Busan on Monday, a U.S. military spokesman said. He declined to disclose their destination and spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to discuss the ships' routes.
South Korea also planned to dispatch its Aegis-equipped destroyer, according to a Seoul military official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.
Those warships of the three nations are equipped with sophisticated combat systems enabling them to track and shoot down enemy missiles. However, leaders of the three countries indicated it was unlikely the warships would respond militarily to the North's launch.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said in an interview with the Financial Times published Monday that his government opposed any military response to the North's launch, saying that would be unhelpful in talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a TV interview aired Sunday that the U.S. had no plans to intercept the North Korean rocket but might consider it if an "aberrant missile" were headed to Hawaii "or something like that."
Japan initially hinted it might shoot down the rocket, but then said it would fire interceptors only if debris from a failed launch appeared likely to hit Japanese territory.