WASHINGTON – Two U.S. Navy destroyers, including one capable of intercepting missiles, were moved out of a South Korean port Monday amid expectations that North Korea might launch a rocket over the Pacific Ocean by the end of the week.
The repositioning of the ships marked the latest in a series of military and diplomatic maneuvers between the United States and Pyongyang.
The pending launch has emerged as an early foreign-policy test of the Obama administration, which hopes to restart talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has insisted that the pending launch is to lift a civilian satellite into space. But U.S. officials have said the real purpose is to test intercontinental ballistic missile technology that could someday be used to carry a warhead and possibly reach the U.S. coastline.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that the United States would not fire on the North Korean rocket unless it appeared to be headed for U.S. territory.
“If we had an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii … we might consider it,” Gates said in a television interview on Fox News. “But I don’t think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point.”
Lt. Matt Galan, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, confirmed that the destroyers McCain and Chafee both left port in Busan, South Korea, on Monday, but he declined to discuss their mission or destination. Galan said only that the McCain was armed with missile tracking and interception capability.
Recent satellite imagery indicated that North Korea had finished assembling the rocket, a Taepodong 2, on a launchpad along the country’s eastern coastline.
Pyongyang has said it intends to launch the rocket between Saturday and April 8.