WASHINGTON, Feb 18 – A senior US military commander on Thursday voiced fear of new "provocation" within months from North Korea but said he had no indications the communist state was preparing a new missile launch.
Satellite images posted on the website of US defense information group GlobalSecurity.org showed that North Korea has completed a launch tower at its new Tongchang-ri missile base.
"This is a major concern of ours," Admiral Robert Willard, head of the 300,000-troop US Pacific Command, said of North Korea\’s missile program.
"When you package that together with the provocative actions that we saw in 2010, and the complexities of succession that are currently ongoing in North Korea, it should concern us all," Willard said at the Asia Society.
Pointing to the succession process in North Korea, Willard said: "We may very well be facing the next provocation in months and not years."
But Willard played down speculation of another missile launch by North Korea, which came under international opprobrium for firing Taepodong missiles into the Pacific in 1998 and 2009.
There are "no signs that I\’m aware of that they\’re preparing for near-term missile tests," Willard said.
Tensions soared last November when North Korea shelled a civilian area of South Korea for the first time since their 1950-53 war, killing four people.
North Korean forces were also accused of torpedoing a South Korean warship in March with the loss of 46 lives.
Some North Korea watchers have linked the incidents to political dynamics inside the communist state as ailing leader Kim Jong-Il\’s youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, tries to show his mettle.
Willard pledged US support for South Korea and warned of its reaction to any new incidents.
"These provocations… have raised the ire of the South Korean administration and South Korean people in a way that we haven\’t seen," Willard said.
"While the North prides itself on being able to provoke and avoid reprisal, the South Korean level of tolerance for a next provocation appears to be very low," he said.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak\’s administration has hardened its line on North Korea after initially facing domestic criticism over last year\’s attacks.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last month that North Korea could have missiles within five years that would directly threaten the United States.