SEOUL, April 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States have upgraded their surveillance status to keep closer tabs on an imminent missile launch by North Korea amid escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula, military officials said Wednesday.
Pyongyang is believed to have completed preparations for a mid-range missile launch from its east coast after it moved two Musudan missiles to its east coast last week by rail and mounted them on mobile launchers.
Ahead of an imminent test, the Combined Forces Command raised "Watchcon" 3 status, a normal defense condition, by one level to step up surveillance monitoring and increase the number of intelligence staff, a senior military official said.
South Korea's military also launched an emergency task force team charged with monitoring and analyzing the latest development in North Korea's preparations, he said.
South Korean and U.S. intelligence officials have been closely monitoring the North Korean facility believed to contain the Musudan missiles mounted on the TELs (transporter-erector-launcher). The missile can fly 3,000-4,000 kilometers, making it capable of hitting the U.S. base in Guam in the Pacific Ocean.
Seoul officials say there are high chances that Pyongyang could fire off a missile around April 15 to mark the birthday of late founding leader Kim Il-sung, the current ruler Kim Jong-un's grandfather. Last year, the North unsuccessfully conducted a rocket launch days before the 100th anniversary of Kim's birth.
Officials in Seoul say there are possibilities that the North may fire off several missiles from different sites, in case of an unsuccessful launch of the Musudan missile, which has never been tested in the nation before.
Musudan is a liquid-propellant, single warhead missile based on the Russian R-27 and using adapted Soviet Scud technology.
According to satellite imagery, four or five more TELs were recently spotted in South Hamgyong Province, sparking speculation that the North may fire off missiles in several places.
The TELs were believed to be launch platforms for short-range Scud missiles, which have a range of 300-500 kilometers, and medium-range Nodong missiles, which can travel 1,300-1,500 km, the source said.
"There are clear signs that the North could simultaneously fire off Musudan, Scud and Nodong missiles," a government source said, asking for anonymity citing confidential information.
To track the missile's trajectory, two Aegis destroyers with SPY-1 radar, which can track hundreds of targets as far as 1,000 kilometers away, have been on standby on the east and west coasts of the Korean Peninsula.
The South Korean military is also operating the ground-based missile defense radar system Green Pine, and the early warning aircraft Peace Eye under a stepped up military readiness status to prepare for a potential rocket launch, according to military officials.
Japan said Tuesday that it has deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors to key locations around Tokyo.
On Tuesday, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific told Congress the U.S. is capable of intercepting a North Korean missile, should Pyongyang launch one anytime soon. But Washington may decide not to shoot it down if the projected trajectory shows it is not a threat.
While Pyongyang had notified its planned trajectory of a long-range rocket to its neighboring nations ahead of the Dec. 12 rocket launch, it has not yet given notice to its airmen and mariners to stay out of the region.
A senior government official said the North may have decided not to set a "no-fly, no-sail zone" in fear that its missiles could be destroyed by Japan's missile interception system.
"Musudan's missile range can differ depending on the launching angle and the quantity of fuel. If North Korea sets a no-fly, no-sail zone, the missile propellant and warhead will fall within the area, which would give a trajectory of the planned launch," the official spoke on the condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the issue. "The North may be worried that Japan could strike its missiles."
North Korea is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles of varying types, with most only able to target South Korea and some capable of hitting some Japanese and U.S. military bases.
Seoul considers the mobile launch platforms as a big threat to its missile defense system as it is hard to detect wheeled vehicles and destroy them because they can move around.
The North claimed the December rocket launch was aimed at sending a satellite into space, though Seoul and Washington condemned it as a covert ballistic missile test.
It remains unclear whether the North has mastered the technology to develop a nuclear warhead that can be fitted on a long-range missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland.