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. US airs confidence it could down NKorean missile
WASHINGTON, March 4 (AFP) Mar 04, 2009
As Washington steps up diplomacy to prevent a North Korean missile launch, the US military is also voicing growing confidence that it can shoot it down if Pyongyang goes ahead.

Stephen Bosworth, the new US administration's envoy on North Korea, was holding talks in China on Wednesday as he consults allies on what could turn into an early foreign crisis for President Barack Obama.

But the US military is taking no chances with North Korea, which has warned it is preparing a "satellite launch". Washington and Seoul say the real purpose is to test a missile which could theoretically reach the US state of Alaska.

In unusually blunt remarks, Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific Command based in Hawaii, said that interceptor ships are ready "on a moment's notice."

"Should it look like it's something other than a satellite launch, we will be fully prepared to respond as the president directs," he said in a recent interview with ABC News.

"Odds are very high that we'll hit what we're aiming at. That should be a source of great confidence and reassurance for our allies," he said.

Charles McQueary, the Pentagon's director for operational tests and evaluation, said the United States has carried out three test scenarios for a North Korean missile launch and destroyed the threat each time.

"To me, that was a demonstration that this system has the capability to work," McQueary told a congressional panel.

North Korea is preparing its apparent missile test amid a stalemate in a six-nation 2007 deal under which the impoverished state agreed to end its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security promises.

The United States and its allies have ramped up defenses since 1998 when North Korea fired a Taepodong long-range missile over Japan's main island of Honshu into the Pacific Ocean.

The United States operates some 28 ground-based interceptors, 18 ships equipped with the Aegis radar tracking system and a number of radar systems, including the "Cobra Dane" complex in Alaska's Aleutian islands, according to the Missile Defense Agency.

Regional US allies Japan and South Korea also have Aegis-equipped vessels. Japan, which has tense relations with North Korea, has set up Patriot interceptor missiles including in central Tokyo.

North Korea expert Bruce Klingner, who formerly worked for the CIA, saw a 70 to 80 percent chance of Pyongyang going ahead with a missile test.

"It is the next step in Pyongyang's escalating efforts to try to get the US to soften its demands in the six-way talks and back away from the requirement of international standards for verification" of nuclear disarmament, said Klingner, now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

But he said that a test could trigger even closer military cooperation between the United States and its allies, such as leading South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak to expand missile defense.

Until Lee took over a year ago, South Korea had a decade of liberal leaders who focused on reconciliation with the North and shied away from anything that could be seen as military confrontation.

"A successful launch would significantly and overnight alter the threat perception in northeast Asia," Klingner said.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Monday that Tokyo -- officially pacifist since World War II -- was ready to shoot a North Korean missile targeting the country.

However, it remains to be seen -- both technically and politically -- if Japan could shoot down a missile flying over its territory toward the United States.

Current Japanese military doctrine says the country will only fire on a missile that directly targets its soil, although conservative governments have called for a change to allow so-called "collective self-defense."

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