Last updated: March 15, 2013 10:14 pm

US to ramp up Pacific missile defences

The US will substantially increase the number of missile interceptors along the Pacific coast in a direct response to the growing threats from North Korea after its latest nuclear and missile tests.

Chuck Hagel, the new defence secretary, said that the US would add another 14 ground-based receptors to the 30 it already had in California and Alaska in order to blunt a potential attack from North Korea.

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Although there are still significant questions about the effectiveness of American missile defence technologies, the Pentagon believes the announcement will act as a powerful signal of deterrence towards Pyongyang.

“The reason that we’re doing what we’re doing is to not take any chances, is to stay ahead of the threat,” Mr Hagel said.

Before the Pentagon announcement, North Korea fired two short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast, South Korean state media reported on Friday, at a time of increased tension on the peninsula following Pyongyang’s nuclear test last month.

Yonhap News, South Korea’s state news agency, quoted a military source in Seoul as saying that a North Korean unit had “test-fired two shots of short-range missiles, presumed to be KN-02 missiles”, which have an estimated range of 100-150km.

Pyongyang's recent threats are part of a chain of events that began in December with a satellite launch which North Korea claimed was within its sovereign rights, but which contravened UN sanctions prohibiting its use of ballistic missile technology.

North Korea responded to the resultant new sanctions by executing its third nuclear device test last month. When that led to a further round of sanctions, Pyongyang said that US-led pressure was driving the Korean peninsula towards war.

North Korea has said it is prepared to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US in response to this perceived threat, although analysts doubt that it has yet achieved the ability to do so.

Meanwhile, North Korea accused Seoul and Washington of perpetrating a cyber attack on its servers, which it claimed was the reason for the shutdown of official websites on Wednesday and Thursday.

Despite recent signs of progress, experts believe North Korea is still years and maybe decades away from having a nuclear weapon that could hit continental US. The Pentagon said that the new interceptors would be in place by 2017.

In a speech earlier this week, James Miller, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, said that the missile defence systems “are intended in part to make it clear to both Iran and North Korea that if they develop [intercontinental ballistic missiles], they will not be able to threaten the United States”.

The US is also helping its allies in the region boost their missile defence capabilities, including the deployment of a second missile-tracking radar in Japan.

However, efforts to expand missile defence capabilities in the Pacific are likely to be strongly opposed by China, where officials see them as an attempt to blunt its own missile capabilities. Mr Miller said that Beijing had been informed of the decision to add new interceptors.

North Korean state media routinely warns of the possibility of conflict, and the recent threat to abandon the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean war follows a similar statement in 2009. Nonetheless, South Korean officials say that the unusual intensity of the declarations over the past two weeks have caused concern.

There has been a sanguine reaction to the statements among the public in Seoul, however. On Friday, domestic media focused on President Park Geun-hye's efforts to pass a government restructuring bill and Samsung's launch of its latest smartphone.

“The reason for this calm is simple,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a leading expert on North Korea, wrote this week. “South Koreans ... see such histrionics as often as once every year or two.”

Mr Lankov said that military confrontation was unlikely, calling North Korea's recent statements a performance aimed at both foreign and domestic audiences. “The North Korean populace has to be regularly reminded that their country is surrounded by scheming enemies. Otherwise, they might start asking politically dangerous questions.”

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