Are N. Korea’s short-range missile tests a prelude?

Thursday’s tests were expected; what’s at issue now is whether Pyongyang will send a long-range missile toward Hawaii on July 4.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A South Korean man watches undated footage of a North Korean missile launch at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on Thursday.

WashingtonNorth Korea’s launch of four short-range missiles Thursday was widely expected by US and South Korean intelligence. The question now is whether these firings were the main event or just a prelude to something more threatening: the test of a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Last month, Japanese media reported that Pyongyang might shoot a long-range ICBM in the direction of Hawaii around the July 4 holiday. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered the deployment in the region of US antimissile interceptors and a sea-based tracking radar.

President Obama thought the situation serious enough to address in an interview broadcast on June 22.

“Our military is fully prepared for any contingencies” regarding North Korea, Mr. Obama said.

But despite Thursday’s ripple of short-range test shots, there is little physical evidence North Korea is readying another long-range test, at least in the foreseeable future. And even if the North Koreans do test another ICBM, it is “highly unlikely” they would actually intend the missile as an attack on Hawaii, according to David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

According to wire service reports, North Korea on Thursday fired two ground-to-ship missiles into the ocean from the eastern coastal city of Wonsan. Two other similar short-range tests followed, but details as to firing location and missile type were not readily available. All four missiles flew about 60 miles, said the Associated Press (AP).

“It’s not a good sign because [North Korea] is demonstrating its military power,” South Korea Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told the AP. Japan and Russia also expressed concern about the tests.

The tests were expected because North Korea had warned ships to stay away from areas off its eastern coastline through July 10, due to the possibility of military exercises.

These launches come at a time when tensions between Pyongyang and much of the rest of the world are rising.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council voted to approve tougher sanctions on North Korea, in the wake of North Korea’s May 25 underground nuclear tests, and a series of other missile firings.

In a test of those sanctions, the US Navy has been following a North Korean cargo ship, the Kang Nam, that is believed to be carrying weapons exports destined for Myanmar or some other East Asian port. Such exports are banned by the UN proscriptions.

However, on July 1, the Kang Nam turned around and chugged north again in a direction aimed vaguely toward home. At the time of writing, the implications of this turnabout remain unclear.

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