North Korea may add fireworks to recess week

As Congress heads into the holiday recess, North Korea may fire up the foreign policy stakes — and highlight Kim Jong-Il's flair for the dramatic — with a symbolic test launch of a missile pointed toward Hawaii on or near July 4.

It wouldn't be North Korea's first push to make fireworks of their own: A long-range missile was test-fired in the early morning of July 5, 2006, but like so many holiday bottle rockets the Taepodong-2 fizzled within a minute.

But seasons change, and now North Korea may be attempting a similar Independence Day stunt with a new administration — and with ruler Kim Jong-Il reportedly having recently designated youngest son Kim Jong-Un, in his mid-20s, to be his successor.

The launch time-frame was pegged between July 4 and July 8 by intelligence sources quoted in Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, with North Korea designating a no-sail zone off its coast from June 25 to July 10. This comes in the wake of an April test launch of a long-range missile that dropped into the Pacific Ocean some 2,400 miles from its launch site, and a May 25 nuclear test that rattled regional nerves.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded to the threat of another launch — this time possibly in the direction of Hawaii — by saying that the U.S. was "in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect Americans and American territory."

But the reach of such a test remains to be seen. U.S. intelligence sources told media outlets last week that the launch would likely be short- to medium-range missiles, and on Saturday North Korea accused Japan of attempting to monitor a launch site and threatened to shoot down the country's spy planes. The April launch passed over Japanese territory.

“The situation in North Korea should be of concern to all Americans and other nations as they continue with their bellicose rhetoric," Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) told The Hill in a statement after the Japanese report of the anticipated direction of the test launch. "While I sincerely hope that the leaders of North Korea would not engage in any action which could potentially put Hawaii at risk, we can be grateful that our nation has invested in missile defense technology which is available today to defeat this North Korean threat.  

"I commend the Secretary of Defense for acting quickly to redeploy additional missile defense assets in the Pacific in case the North Koreans should act unwisely,” Inouye added.

On Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso met with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to discuss North Korea. Lee met with President Obama in Washington earlier this month, where Lee said that the U.S. alliance would make North Korea "think twice about taking any measures that they will regret."

After Obama called North Korea's nuclear program a "grave threat" at that meeting, the North fired back by warning the U.S. against provocation.

"If the U.S. and its followers infringe upon our republic's sovereignty even a bit, our military and people will launch a one hundred- or one thousand-fold retaliation, with a merciless military strike," said a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Last week North Korea continued its rhetoric, saying, "If the U.S. imperialists start another war, the army and people of Korea will wipe out the aggressors on the globe once and for all."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell took that with a grain of salt.

"I don't even know how I — how I even respond to such silliness. I don't —- I — 'wipe the United States off the map' — for what and with what?" Morrell responded to a reporter's question at a Wednesday press briefing. "Yeah, I don't think I'm going to dignify that one with a response."

The reclusive North stepped up its incessant saber-rattling yet again Sunday in the communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, saying, "We will strengthen our nuclear deterrence further for our self-defense to cope with outright U.S. nuclear threats and nuclear war attempts."

The Korean Central News Agency, which now tweets updates from the KCNA_DPRK Twitter account, most recently assailed "the wicked intention of the U.S. seeking to provoke a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and the puppets zealously following it."

Aso and Lee agreed Sunday to "never tolerate" a nuclear North Korea, and sought to give a greater role to another regional player.

"We agreed to strengthen cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States, and agreed on the need to deepen cooperation with China," Aso said.

The two leaders also floated the idea of restarting the six-party talks even if Pyongyang doesn't want to take part, making them five-party talks with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S.

Yonhap news agency also reported Sunday that South Korea was acquiring 40 Lockheed Martin missiles for an Aegis destroyer to boost its defenses in anticipation of more missile testing from the North.

While not mentioning the threat of a missile launch, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, speaking Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," said that the U.S. continues to track a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, believed to be carrying illicit weapons or missile technology in violation of a Security Council resolution.

"When this resolution is fully enforced, not only in terms of potential vessels that may be violating the sanctions but the financial sanctions, the arms embargo, the assets freezes, this will be a very, very tough package that will have an impact on North Korea," Rice said.

The Kang Nam, believed to be heading toward Myanmar, is being followed by the USS John S. McCain.