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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is moving ground-to-air missile defenses to Hawaii as tensions escalate between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's recent moves to restart its nuclear-weapon program and resume test-firing long-range missiles.

In anticipation of a North Korean missile test, the U.S. is positioning off Hawaii a floating radar, like this one shown in a 2005 Boeing photo.
Associated Press

In anticipation of a North Korean missile test, the U.S. is positioning off Hawaii a floating radar, like this one shown in a 2005 Boeing photo.
In anticipation of a North Korean missile test, the U.S. is positioning off Hawaii a floating radar, like this one shown in a 2005 Boeing photo.
In anticipation of a North Korean missile test, the U.S. is positioning off Hawaii a floating radar, like this one shown in a 2005 Boeing photo.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday that the U.S. is concerned that Pyongyang might soon fire a missile toward Hawaii. Some senior U.S. officials expect a North Korean test by midsummer, even though most don't believe the missile would be capable of crossing the Pacific and reaching Hawaii.

Mr. Gates told reporters that the U.S. is positioning a sophisticated floating radar array in the ocean around Hawaii to track an incoming missile. The U.S. is also deploying missile-defense weapons to Hawaii that would theoretically be capable of shooting down a North Korean missile, should such an order be given, he said.

"We do have some concerns if they were to launch a the direction of Hawaii," Mr. Gates said. "We are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect American territory."

In another sign of America's mounting concern about North Korea, a senior defense official said the U.S. is tracking a North Korean vessel, the Kang Nam, suspected of carrying weapons banned by a recent United Nations resolution.

The U.S. moves come as strains intensify between the U.S. and North Korea. Earlier this year, Pyongyang test-fired a missile that flew over Japan before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. On May 25, Pyongyang detonated a nuclear device at a test site near its border with China, drawing rare rebukes from Moscow and Beijing.

President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met earlier this week at the White House and agreed to launch a new effort to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. In a joint statement, the Obama administration also agreed to maintain the longstanding U.S. vow to defend South Korea from a North Korean attack.

Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported Thursday that North Korea would launch a long-range Taepodong-2 missile at Hawaii from the Dongchang-ni site on the country's northwestern coast on or close to July 4. In his comments to reporters, Mr. Gates didn't directly address the Japanese report or say whether the U.S. had evidence that North Korea was preparing for a launch.

Some U.S. officials have said satellite imagery shows activity at a North Korea testing facility that has been used in the past to launch long-range missiles. On a trip to Manila earlier this month, Mr. Gates said the U.S. had "seen some signs" that North Korea was preparing to launch a long-range missile. But he cautioned, that "at this point, its not clear what they're going to do."
[North Korea] Getty Images

North Korean soldiers raise their fists in the air as they hold a rally to denounce the United Nations Security Council's resolution on sanctions at the Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on June 15, 2009.

The stakes would be high for both North Korea and the U.S. in the event of a missile launch.

North Korea would be attempting to demonstrate that it was capable of striking the U.S., but many U.S. defense officials are highly skeptical that North Korea has a missile capable of reaching Hawaii, which is more than 4,500 miles away from North Korea.

North Korean long-range missiles have failed three previous tests in the past 11 years. In the most notable North Korean misfire, a Taepodong-2 missile that Pyongyang launched on July 4, 2006, imploded less than 35 seconds after taking off.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, would have to choose whether to attempt to shoot down the missile, a technically complicated procedure with no guarantee of success. An American failure would embarrass Washington, embolden Pyongyang and potentially encourage Asian allies like Japan to take stronger measures of their own against North Korea.

Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, who as Hawaii's adjutant general directs the state's Army and Air National Guard, said the military "certainly has enough assets to protect the state of Hawaii."

Last week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution expanding sanctions and inspections against North Korea in response to the nuclear test. The resolution bars North Korea from exporting a wide range of weaponry, and "calls upon" all U.N. states to search North Korean vessels, with their consent, for nuclear-related material and other contraband.

The senior defense official said the U.S. would seek to have the North Korean ship suspected of carrying banned arms searched before it reaches its final destination, believed to be Singapore. The ship left North Korea on Wednesday. The official said U.S. or allied personnel wouldn't board the ship by force and would search the ship only with the permission of its crew.

North Korea has said it would view any efforts at interdiction as an act of war, and some U.S. officials worry North Korean vessels would use force to prevent U.S., Japanese or South Korean personnel from searching their ships, potentially sparking an armed confrontation.

More broadly, the Obama administration has recently begun re-evaluating the entire premise of American diplomatic outreach to North Korea. Successive U.S. administrations dating back to the Clinton White House have struck deals with North Korea that traded financial assistance, food and power generators for North Korean promises to shut down its nuclear program. Each time, North Korea eventually backed out of the deals.

Pyongyang's refusal to honor its agreements has persuaded the Obama administration that North Korea was unlikely to ever voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons. That has led the administration to reject the idea of offering North Korea additional aid in exchange for new North Korean vows to abide by agreements it has repeatedly abrogated.

Many Obama administration officials are also skeptical of reopening the so-called six-party talks with North Korea, which also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Instead, the administration is trying to persuade China to take a stronger line with North Korea, a putative ally that is deeply dependent on China. U.S. officials hope China will help search and potentially board suspicious North Korean vessels, but China has been noncommittal.

Asked if China had finally accepted U.S. assessments of the threat posed by North Korea, Mr. Gates demurred. "I think that remains to be seen," he said.
—Stu Woo contributed to this article.

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