North Korea is "skating very close to a dangerous line" after weeks of saber-rattling, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Wednesday as northeast Asia watched for an expected missile test.
"Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. He said the United States and its allies want to see North Korean rhetoric "ratcheted down," but if that doesn't happen, "our country is fully prepared to deal with any contingency."
"We have every capacity to deal with any action North Korea will take to protect this country and the interests of this country and our allies," Hagel said.
American radar and satellites are trained on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, where the communist government of Kim Jong Un is believed to have prepared mobile ballistic missiles for launch at any time, U.S. and South Korean officials warned.
Japan has deployed missile defense systems around Tokyo, some Chinese tour groups have canceled visits to North Korea and the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said Tuesday that he couldn't recall a time of greater tension in the region since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s.
Since December, North Korea has put a satellite in orbit atop a long-range rocket; conducted a nuclear bomb test, its third since 2006; and claimed to be prepared for pre-emptive nuclear attacks on the United States, though most analysts believe it does not yet have that capability.
The north has given ample warning to the world before previous long-range rocket launches -- but it is keeping everyone guessing about what it might do this time around.
Intelligence suggests that North Korea may be planning "multiple missile launches" in the coming days beyond two Musudan mobile missiles it has placed along its east coast, Pentagon officials told CNN. The officials did not have specifics on the numbers of other missiles and launchers.
One official said the North Koreans are military "masters of deception," and may have planned all along to focus the world's attention on the Musudans while they plan multiple launches of other missiles. That's a tactic they have used in the past, the official said.
The United States is less troubled about the other missiles, a second Pentagon official told CNN.
"We've been seeing some launchers moving around. These are smaller and don't cause us as much concerns," that official said. "We think these movements are within seasonal norms for their exercises."
But he didn't discount the possibility that they might launch some of those, as they often do.
The Musudan is an untested weapon that South Korea says has a range as far as 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). That would mean it could reach as far as Guam, a Western Pacific territory that is home to U.S. naval and air bases and where the United States recently said it was placing missile defense systems.
After a launch, U.S. satellites and radars in the region would be able to calculate the trajectory of missiles within minutes and quickly conclude whether they are on a test path headed for open ocean or potentially headed for land areas such as Japan.
The United States and Japan would then have to decide whether to try to shoot the missiles down, U.S. officials say.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday told CNN that despite being an ally of North Korea, it stands with the United States.
"On North Korea, we have no differences with the United States. One just shouldn't scare anyone with military maneuvers and there's a chance things might calm down," he said.
A launch without warning?
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at a parliamentary hearing Wednesday that "according to intelligence obtained by our side and the U.S., the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high," the semiofficial South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.
Yun said he was basing his assessment on South Korean and U.S. intelligence.
On Tuesday, a U.S. official said that the American government believes a test launch could happen at any time and without North Korea issuing a standard notice to commercial aviation and maritime shipping that would warn planes and vessels to stay away from the missile's path.
The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information, cautioned that most of the information comes from satellite imagery, so it's impossible to reach a definitive conclusion because the United States cannot gather information on the ground.
He said the launch could be "imminent" but also cautioned that the United States "simply doesn't know." Based on what the United States has seen, the belief is that the missiles have received their liquid fuel and are ready for launch.
Speaking at a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, Locklear said the U.S. military would not want to shoot down a North Korean missile whose trajectory would send it into the open sea. But he said if a missile's path appeared to threaten a U.S. ally, such as Japan, interceptor missiles could be used to try to bring it down.
Japan poised to react 'calmly'