The US said it would bolster defenses against a possible North Korean missile strike a week after Pyongyang threatened a “pre-emptive” nuclear attack against its archenemy.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Friday said that 14 more interceptors would be stationed in Alaska, increasing by almost half the 30 already deployed along the California and Alaska coastlines. The aim is to have them in place by 2017.
North Korea has threatened to unleash a second Korean war — backed by nuclear weapons — in response to UN sanctions imposed after its third atomic test last month and joint South Korea-US military maneuvers.
As tensions spiral, the North fired short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan (known as the “East Sea” in South Korea) on Friday, Yonhap news agency said, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversaw a live-fire drill near the disputed Yellow Sea border with South Korea.
Hagel said the defense upgrade was designed to “stay ahead of the threat” from the North Korean regime, which claims to possess missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental US.
“The United States has missile defense systems in place to protect us from limited ICBM attacks,” Hagel said. “But North Korea, in particular, has recently made advances in its capabilities and is engaged in a series of irresponsible and reckless provocations.”
Apart from mobilizing the additional interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, Hagel also confirmed an announcement made last year that the US plans to deploy a second advanced radar to Japan.
Hagel said the Pentagon was conducting environmental impact studies to clear the way for a possible additional US site for a ground-based missile interceptor, but no location had been chosen.
“The US move may draw another escalation by the North, which may take countermeasures against the latest US move,” Tokyo-based international defense analyst Hisao Iwashima said.
Japanese defense expert Hideshi Takesada, a former professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, said the US move showed its “seriousness about its countermeasures against the North’s missile threat.”
“With the planned radar [in Japan], the US early warning system will be complete and can cover the Korean Peninsula entirely,” he said.
Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul said the challenge for South Korea was different due to its proximity to the North.
“It is extremely difficult for South Korea to intercept missiles from the North because its geographical depth is too short. Instead, South Korea is focusing on building up its ability to destroy the North’s missile-launching facilities.”
The US missile defense program has been plagued by technical problems, but Hagel gave assurances that the “interceptors are effective” and the goal is to deploy the new ones by 2017.
North Korea has missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan, but has yet to demonstrate it has the capability to fire long-range missiles that could reach the US.
However, officials worry that North Korea has made progress on the ICBM front, having put a satellite into orbit, while Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program heightens concerns about the threat posed by the hermit nation.