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The US military has deployed antimissile systems to Hawaii to beef up the islands' defenses in response to intelligence reports that North Korea may test-fire long-range ballistic missiles toward the state around the July 4 holiday.
Analysts say North Korea has little to gain from shooting test missiles at the United States, and suggest this latest move could reflect internal political divisions over the country's foreign policy and the eventual succession of its leader, Kim Jong-il. The secretive state heightened its threatening rhetoric after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the North in response to its nuclear test May 25. North Korea, which has also tested long- and short-range missiles in the past months, has threatened to respond "a thousand-fold" if provoked.
Citing analysis from Japan's Defense Ministry and information from US satellites, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Thursday that long-range Taepodong-2 missiles were brought to the North's Tongchang-ri launch site on May 30. Japan reportedly believes "it is highly likely [they] will be launched toward Hawaii" between July 4 and July 8, the anniversary of the 1994 death of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who was Kim Jong-il's father.
However, it is unlikely the test missiles would reach US territory, says Yomiuri. Taepodong-2 missiles have a range of 4,000 – 6,500 kilometers (2,485 – 4,038 miles), but Hawaii and North Korea are 7,000 kilometers (4,349 miles) apart.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates would not say how the US plans to respond to any North Korean tests, but expressed confidence in its ability to handle the situation, reports the Los Angeles Times. The Times reports that a ship-based radar relay docked in Hawaii known as SBX has been assigned to watch the skies. The Pentagon has also sent the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system to the state, and placed missile interceptors in California and Alaska on the ready. Working together, the network is designed to shoot an approaching missile out of the sky.
Speaking to Honolulu Fox affiliate KHON, Carl Baker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum said the episode might reflect divisions within North Korea between those who want to engage further with the outside world and those who do not. Honolulu ABC affiliate KITV says news of the possible missile test "is making some people edgy." But speaking to the network, analyst Denny Roy says "long-term issue[s]" within North Korea are a bigger concern than the possibility of a missile strike on Hawaii.
"The question you have to ask is: Why would they want to do that? It would be basically suicidal … for North Korea to launch a missile, nuclear or conventional," said Denny Roy, of the East-West Center.
Roy said he thinks the latest tensions are tied to the struggle over the succession of Kim Jong Il.
"There is more of a crisis atmosphere than there was a couple of years ago. A couple of years ago we had some hope of the dismantling of the nuclear weapons program now that seems to be off the table," Roy said.
An article in Foreign Policy argues that the world should not rule out North Korea's possible use of nuclear weapons, as the regime "would do anything to survive."
This game of escalation will go on and on until North Korea gets what it desires most from Washington: a reliable security assurance. Of course, no one likes to yield to dictators. But ultimately, playing chicken with a desperate and nuclear-armed North Korea is too risky to endeavor. The more isolated the North Koreans become, the more likely they will be to use the nuclear card in threatening two hostages: South Korea and Japan. Everyone loses that game.