WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is tracking a ship from North Korea that may be carrying illicit weapons, the first vessel monitored under tougher new United Nations rules meant to rein in and punish the communist government following a nuclear test, officials said Thursday.
The suspect ship could become a test case for interception of the North's ships at sea, something the North has said it would consider an act of war.
Officials said the U.S. is monitoring the voyage of the North Korean-flagged Kang Nam, which left port in North Korea on Wednesday. On Thursday, it was traveling in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of China, two officials said on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
What the Kang Nam was carrying was not known, but the ship has been involved in weapons proliferation, one of the officials said.
The ship is among a group that is watched regularly but is the only one believed to have cargo that could potentially violate the U.N. resolution, the official said.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen did not specifically confirm that the U.S. was monitoring the ship when he was asked about it at a Pentagon news conference Thursday.
"We intend to vigorously enforce the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 to include options, to include, certainly, hail and query," Mullen said. "If a vessel like this is queried and doesn't allow a permissive search," he noted, it can be directed into port.
The Security Council resolution calls on all 192 U.N. member states to inspect vessels on the high seas "if they have information that provides reasonable grounds to believe that the cargo" contains banned weapons or material to make them, and if approval is given by the country whose flag the ship sails under.
If the country refuses to give approval, it must direct the vessel "to an appropriate and convenient port for the required inspection by the local authorities."
The resolution does not authorize the use of force. But if a country refuses to order a vessel to a port for inspection, it would be in violation of the resolution and the country licensing the vessel would face possible sanctions by the Security Council.
Gates, speaking at the same news conference, said the Pentagon is concerned about the possibility of a North Korean missile launch "in the direction of Hawaii."
Gates told reporters at the Pentagon he has sent the military's ground-based mobile missile system to Hawaii, and positioned a radar system nearby. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in their last stage of flight.
"We are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect Americans and American territory," Gates said.
A Japanese newspaper reported Thursday that North Korea might fire its most advanced ballistic missile toward Hawaii around the Fourth of July holiday.
A new missile launch — though not expected to reach U.S. territory — would be a brazen slap in the face of the international community, which punished North Korea with new U.N. sanctions for conducting a second nuclear test on May 25 in defiance of a U.N. ban.
North Korea spurned the U.N. Security Council resolution with threats of war and pledges to expand its nuclear bomb-making program.
The missile now being readied in the North is believed to be a Taepodong-2 with a range of up to 4,000 miles and would be launched from North Korea's Dongchang-ni site on the northwestern coast, the Yomiuri newspaper said. It cited an analysis by Japan's Defense Ministry and intelligence gathered by U.S. reconnaissance satellites.