An American destroyer is tailing a North Korean ship suspected of transporting weapons toward Burma, as anticipation mounted today that the North could soon test-fire short- or medium-range missiles off its eastern coast.
The Kang Nam left the port of North Korean port of Nampo a week ago, and the destroyer USS John S McCain is following as it sails off the Chinese coast. The sailing sets up the first test of a new UN Security Council resolution that authorises member states to inspect North Korean vessels suspected of carrying banned weapons or materials.
The sanctions are punishment for an underground nuclear test the North carried out last month in defiance of past resolutions. It's not clear exactly what the Kang Nam has on board, but it has transported illicit goods in the past.
The North has said it would consider any interception "an act of war," with its main Rodong Sinmun newspaper warning yesterday the Korean peninsula was on the brink of a nuclear war.
A US official said last week that the American destroyer has no orders to intercept the ship, but experts say the vessel will need to stop to refuel soon on a 4,100-mile, two-week, sail to Burma.
The resolution prohibits member states from providing such services to ships accused of bearing banned goods.
Nearby Singapore - the world's largest refuelling hub - says it will "act appropriately" if the ship docks at its port with suspicious goods on board.
At most, Singapore may refuse to let the ship refuel, said Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea. He also speculated that the Kang Nam may not have banned cargo on board, knowing the ship could be subject to scrutiny.
In the event that the American destroyer does ask to inspect the Kang Nam and North Korea refuses, the UN resolution states the ship must be directed to a port of Pyongyang's choosing. It was not clear which port the ship would be taken to, though yesterday a Pentagon official said it was about 100 miles north of the Taiwan Strait - close to both the Chinese and Taiwanese coasts.
The North is believed to have sold guns, artillery and other small weapons to Burma in the past. The south-east Asian military state is the target of US and EU arms embargoes. There are concerns it could use small arms in the counterinsurgency campaigns it conducts against ethnic minorities.
Meanwhile, North Korea has issued a notice banning ships from the waters off its east coast between June 25 through July 10 citing maritime firing drills, according to Japan's Coast Guard.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency today reported the North may fire a Scud missile with a range of up to 310 miles or a short-range ground-to-ship missile with a range of 100 miles during the no-sail period.
Yonhap quoted an unidentified South Korean government official as saying the launch is expected from the eastern coastal city of Anbyon. South Korea's Defence Ministry, however, today said there was no particular signs in the area.
It had earlier been reported that the North would test a a long-range missile similar to one tested in April. Japanese media said that could happen around 4 July - the US Independence Day - and the missile would be fired toward Hawaii.
But US defence and counterproliferation officials said that it was expected the North would launch short- to medium-range missiles instead.