Japan has put its military on alert for a possible North Korean ballistic missile launch, following increased activity at the Sohae satellite launch facility, indicating that Pyongyang may be preparing for a test firing, according to Japanese officials.
"Increased activity at North Korea's missile site suggests that there may be a launch in the next few weeks," a source told Reuters.
Japan's Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani ordered Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan to be ready for any North Korean projectiles, but it’s not clear whether the destroyers have been deployed.
Responding to a question on whether Japan will shoot down a North Korean missile, Mr. Nakatani said "We will take steps to respond, but I will refrain from revealing specific measures given the nature of the situation."
The alert comes amid increased tensions fueled by Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, earlier this month, which has prompted discussions among UN security council members, on whether to impose new sanctions against North Korea.
The North is already under United Nations sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed on the need for a significant new UN resolution. But it’s unclear whether China is likely to support new sanctions against North Korea, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.
South Korean officials have long been wary of the North’s activities, and warn that Pyongyang's recent actions should be taken seriously.
"We predict that North Korea's next significant military provocation will be carried out in a surprising manner," Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Thursday at a news conference in Seoul, according to CBS News. "The South Korean military is continuing to keep a close watch on any signs of North Korea's long-range missile test."
North Korea last conducted a long range missile in December 2012, when it successfully launched a Unha-3 (Galaxy 3) rocket into space carrying a satellite, a launch which they insisted was for its space exploration program, but experts refuted the claim saying that Pyongyang used similar technology that is used for developing ballistic missiles. South Korean officials reported the possibility of the North having secured a missile range of up to 6,200 miles, which would put the western coast of the US mainland within reach, the Guardian reported.
North Korea’s claim that the nuclear test it conducted on January 6 was a hydrogen bomb was quickly dismissed by experts, who say that the power of the detonation was not near the levels achieved by successful hydrogen devices.
Despite the unlikelihood of the test being a hydrogen bomb, officials are worried that the “device the North detonated will likely push the country a step closer toward its goal of manufacturing a miniaturized warhead to place on a missile that can threaten the US mainland,” The Washington Post reported.
Secretary Kerry, on his visit to Beijing, warned that the North’s activities were a “threat the United States must take extremely seriously,” the Monitor reported.
“The United States will take all necessary steps to protect our people and allies. We don’t want to heighten security tensions. But we won’t walk away from any options.”