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'Very High' Chance North Korea Will Fire Missile, US and South Korea Say

David Guttenfelder

U.S. defense officials are "highly confident" that North Korea is planning the imminent launch of a medium-range missile, echoing warnings from South Korea that the probability of Pyongyang carrying out its threat is "very high."

Pentagon officials say they believe the rogue communist state is preparing to fire one or more Musadan missiles from its east coast.

The North has been threatening the United States and its "puppet" South Korea almost daily in recent weeks, and the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command told Congress on Tuesday that he could not recollect a more tense time in the region since the end of the Korean War.

(Read More: Here's the Real Danger With North Korea)

World leaders have shown alarm at the prospects of a conflict.

"According to intelligence obtained by our side and the U.S., the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high," South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told a parliamentary hearing in Seoul, according to Reuters.

Musudan missiles could be launched "at any time from now," he said.

U.S. defense chiefs have echoed that belief, acknowledging that North Korea has placed a Musadan missile -- which has a range of roughly 1,800 to 2,100 miles, with a minimum range of about 400 miles -- on its east coast.

(Read More: South Korea Increases Surveillance as North Moves Missile)

On Wednesday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the U.S. is "fully prepared to deal with any contingency" or provocation that North Korea may take, but added that the U.S. hopes the rhetoric will be "ratcheted down."

Speaking at the Pentagon budget rollout briefing, Hagel said that the U.S., the UN, and U.S. allies have made clear to North Korea that Kim Jung Un is "skating very close to a dangerous line," and that his actions and words are not helping to "diffuse the combustible situation."

Navy Adm. Sam Locklear told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. is ready to respond to a North Korean missile launch or other threat.

(Read More: Despite Tough Talk, China's North Korea Options Are Limited)

"I am satisfied that we are ready today, yes," Locklear said.

Asked specifically whether U.S. forces can intercept a missile from North Korea, Locklear said: "I believe we have a credible ability to defend the homeland, to defend Hawaii, defend Guam, to defend our forward-deployed forces and defend our allies."

He went on to say that the U.S. was in a position to intercept a missile even if one were launched imminently.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities in the northeastern city of Dandong told tour agencies to halt overland tourism into North Korea, local travel agents said Wednesday.

(Read More: China Issues Veiled Warning to North Korea)

"All (tourist) travel to North Korea has been stopped from today, and I've no idea when it will restart," a travel agent in Dandong told Reuters.

And despite the taunts from North Korea, which include a warning for foreigners to leave the South, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said no new security warnings were being issued to Americans in South Korea or those planning to travel there.

"There's no specific information to suggest imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the Republic of Korea," he added. "So the U.S. Embassy has not changed its security posture. We have not recommended that U.S. citizens who reside in or plan to visit the Republic of Korea take special security precautions at this time."

(Read More: North Korea to Become the Next Iran: Citi)

Amid the regional tension, South Korea blamed Pyongyang for a cyberattack that shut down tens of thousands of computers and servers at banks last month.

Investigators detected similarities between the March cyberattack and past hacking attributed to the North Korean spy agency, including the recycling of 30 previously used malware programs — out of a total of 76 used in the attack, said Chun Kil-soo, an official at South Korea's Internet security agency.

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