SEOUL, South Korea - An American destroyer was tailing a North Korean ship suspected of transporting weapons toward Myanmar, as anticipation mounted Wednesday that the North could soon conduct short- or medium-range missiles tests.
The Kang Nam left the North Korean port of Nampo a week ago, and the destroyer USS John S. McCain was following as it sailed off the Chinese coast. The sailing sets up the first test of a new U.N. Security
Council resolution that authorizes 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 state media Wednesday accusing the U.S. of fostering "the worst-ever tension" between the Koreas.
"It's evident that a solid peace on the Korean peninsula cannot be established unless the U.S. hostile policy and its plot to isolate our republic are put to an end," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary published by the Korean Central News Agency.
A U.S. 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 (6,660-kilometer), two-week, voyage to Myanmar. The resolution prohibits member states from providing such services to ships accused of bearing banned goods.
Nearby Singapore - the world's largest refueling 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.
The ship has no plan to dock at Hong Kong, according to the Internet log of Hong Kong's Marine Department which shows planned ship arrivals and departures. In 2006, the Kang Nam was once detained in Hong Kong for safety violations, a measure taken after the U.N.'s earlier sanctions imposed following the country's first nuclear test in 2006.
In the event that the American destroyer does ask to inspect the Kang Nam and North Korea refuses, the U.N. 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. On Tuesday, a Pentagon official said the ship was about 100 miles (160 kilometers) 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 Myanmar in the past. The Southeast Asian military state is the target of U.S. 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 and July 10 citing maritime firing drills, according to Japan's Coast Guard.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Wednesday the North may fire a Scud missile with a range of up to 310 miles (500 kilometers) or a short-range ground-to-ship missile with a range of 100 miles (160 kilometers) 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 Defense Ministry, however, said Wednesday that 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 July 4 - the U.S. Independence Day - and the missile would be fired toward Hawaii.
But U.S. defense and counterproliferation officials said Tuesday that it was expected the North would launch short- to medium-range missiles instead. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
Also Wednesday, Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that South Korea plans to expedite the introduction of high-tech unmanned aerial surveillance systems and 'bunker-buster' bombs in the wake of the North's May 25 nuclear test. The paper, quoting unidentified ruling party members, also said South
Korea also plans to equip the presidential Blue House and other key government facilities with systems coping with electromagnetic waves caused by a nuclear blast.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said it could not confirm the report. But a ministry official - speaking on condition of anonymity citing department policy - said the ministry will announce plans later this week to boost its defense capability to deal with the North's increasing military threats.
Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang in Seoul, Pauline Jelinek, Pamela Hess and Lolita Baldor in Washington, Grant Peck in Bangkok, Min Lee in Hong Kong, Alex Kennedy in Singapore, Jill Lawless in London and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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