Ahead of North Korea's planned rocket launch, US dispatches destroyers

The US has said it won't use destroyers to shoot missiles down. But they could gather intelligence.

Preparation: The US Navy's Aegis destroyers USS John S. McCain (left) and USS Chafee recently left this naval port at Busan, South Korea.

The US said Sunday that it won’t shoot down whatever rocket North Korea is apparently preparing to launch between April 4-8. Why, then, have US Navy destroyers modified for ballistic missile defense been leaving Japanese and South Korean ports?

The anticipated launch has dramatically raised tensions in recent weeks: Pyongyang claims it’s merely launching a satellite; Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo say it’s a missile. (Read the Monitor's coverage about recent developments here and about preparations being made at a South Korean air base.)

One reason for dispatching the destroyers could be to provide backup for Japan. The close US ally has itself deployed antimissile systems and vowed to shoot down any debris falling toward its territory – a difficult task for which it would only have 10 minutes notice, according to Reuters.

“I wouldn't lose sleep at night. Japan is very safe," said Rear Admiral James Kelly, commander of the US Naval Forces in Japan, according to Kyodo, a Japanese news agency. US forces are “postured the right way” to respond, he said.

Another option, someone familiar with missile defense system points out, is that the US may just want destroyers capable of tracking and intercepting missiles hanging around when Pyongyang launches one. How often does it get such a close-up shot at gathering intelligence about the secretive country’s rocket capabilities?

In related news, further ratcheting up tensions, North Korea announced Monday that two American journalists detained on the border with China on March 19 will stand trial for “illegal entry” and “hostile acts.” Since being seized, the two reporters – Euna Lee and Laura Ling, both working for California-based Current TV – were undergoing “intense interrogation” at a military guesthouse outside Pyongyang, Reuters reported, citing a South Korean newspaper.

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