AFP - The United States has concerns about a possible North Korean missile launch towards Hawaii and has taken steps to ensure the protection of US territory, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
"We do have some concerns if they were to launch a missile ... in the direction of Hawaii," Gates told a news conference.
The defense secretary said he had approved the deployment of THAAD missile defense weaponry to the US state and radar "to provide support" in case of a possible North Korean missile attack.
And he said that ground-based defenses in Alaska were also at the ready.
"I would just say I think we are in a good position should it become necessary to protect American territory," he said.
The Theatre High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) weaponry is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.
US and South Korean officials have said North Korea might be readying another ballistic missile test after three previous launches in 1998, 2006 and this year.
Pyongyang said its latest April 5 launch put a satellite into orbit, while the United States and its allies labeled it a disguised test of a Taepodong-2 missile theoretically capable of reaching Alaska.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have mounted after Pyongyang carried out its second nuclear test last month.
On Saturday, the North vowed to build more atomic bombs and start enriching uranium for a new nuclear weapons program, in response to new UN sanctions.
The UN financial and shipping sanctions are designed to choke off revenue and disrupt transfers of arms and nuclear technology in and out of North Korea.
The measures do not authorize military force to board North Korean ships, but allow for the US Navy and its allies to ask to inspect North Korean vessels and ships flagged from other countries suspected of carrying banned cargo.
US media reported on Thursday that the US Navy was tracking a flagged North Korean ship suspected of ferrying banned weapons cargo in violation of the UN Security Council resolution adopted last week.
The ship, Kang Nam, departed a port in North Korea on Wednesday and appears to be heading toward Singapore, according to media reports.
Analysts say North Korea could sidestep the shipping sanctions by transporting banned cargo by air or exploiting the wording of the UN resolution which does not approve the use of military force.
The Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun meanwhile reported on Thursday that Tokyo's defense ministry believes that North Korea might now be planning to launch a two-stage or three-stage Taepodong-2 missile towards either Japan's Okinawa island, Guam or Hawaii.
But the ministry said launches toward Okinawa or Guam were "extremely unlikely" because the first-stage booster could drop into waters off China, agitating Beijing, or hit western Japanese territory, the report said.
If the missile were fired in the direction of Hawaii, the booster could drop in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) well before the missile's remaining part flies over northern Japan and towards North America.