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US sends warships as North Korea prepares rocket launch

Heavy snow may be delaying a North Korean rocket launch, according to satellite images, but Pyongyang could still be ready for liftoff in a couple days. TODAY's Erica Hill reports.

Updated at 9:55 a.m. ET: WASHINGTON —The United States is shifting four warships into position to track and possibly defend against a planned North Korean rocket launch, while urging Pyongyang to cancel its second such attempt this year, officials told NBC News.

The Aegis guided-missile cruiser Shiloh and three guided-missile destroyers John S. McCain, Benfold and Fitzgerald will be put in place as a "prudent precaution," officials told NBC News.

The Navy ships' guided missile will attempt to intercept and destroy the North Korean missile if it veers off course and threatens either Japan or the Philippines.


The North Koreans have announced they will attempt to "put a satellite into orbit" atop a ballistic missile sometime between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22.

"It should seem logical that we'll move them around so we have the best situational awareness," Adm. Samuel Locklear, who commands U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region, told a Pentagon news conference, according to Reuters.


"To the degree that those ships are capable of participating in ballistic missile defense, then we will position them to be able to do that," he added.

He said U.S. warships were being moved to monitor the rocket, as they were when Pyongyang attempted a similar launch in April.

"It should seem logical that we'll move them around so we have the best situational awareness," he said. "To the degree that those ships are capable of participating in ballistic missile defense, then we will position them to be able to do that."

Violating UN resolutions?
The United States and many other countries view the test of the long-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile as a violation of U.N. resolutions that would further destabilize the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean warships are searching the Yellow Sea for debris from a recently failed rocket launch by North Korea. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

The North Korean launch attempt in April failed.

Russia, China press N. Korea to scuttle planned rocket launch

Locklear said the re-positioned U.S. ships would help answer a series of questions.

"If they do violate the Security Council and launch a missile, what kind is it? What is it about? Where does it go? Who does it threaten? Where do the parts of it ... that don't go where they want it to go, where do they go? And what are the consequences of that?" he said.

Has North Korea learned its lessons about launches?

The admiral said his main concern was reassuring U.S. allies that the United States was effectively monitoring the situation.

"We believe it is still contradictory to the U.N. Security Council resolutions ... because of the nature of the type of missile that they will be firing and the implications it has for ballistic-type of activity somewhere down the road and the destabilizing impact that will have on the security environment throughout the region," Locklear said.

Elizabeth Dalziel / AP

From work to play, see pictures from inside the secretive country.

New leadership may be more 'rational'
He said there had been signs that the government of new leader Kim Jong Un would take a more "rational approach" to how it deals with its economy, its citizens and its international relationships.

Q&A: Rocket is 'not a military missile ... but it's darn close'

Kim took power after the death of his father, former leader Kim Jong Il, on Dec. 17, 2011. The anniversary of his father's death falls during the time frame set by North Korea for the rocket launch. Presidential elections in neighboring South Korea take place two days later, on Dec. 19.

'Grave provocation': North Korea vows to test long-range rocket

Locklear said while there was hope for a shift in North Korea's political direction, Pyongyang was once again poised to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program.

"We encourage the leadership in North Korea to consider what they are doing here and the implications on the overall security environment on the Korean Peninsula, as well as in Asia," he said.

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Reuters contributed to this report.

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