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(3rd LD) N. Korea moving to test-fire long-range missile: Seoul officials

All Headlines 11:56 February 03, 2009

(ATTN: RECASTS lead; ADDS spy agency official's comment, background; RESTRUCTURES; TRIMS)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Feb. 3 (Yonhap) -- In what appears to be its latest message to U.S. President Barack Obama, North Korea is preparing to test-fire its longest-range missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead, South Korean officials and analysts said Tuesday.

A defense source in Seoul said U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials have recently spotted a North Korean train carrying what is believed to be a Taepodong-2 missile. The source added there will likely be a launch in a month or two.

Taepodong-2 missiles are capable of traveling up to 6,000 kilometers, meaning they can reach as far as Alaska and the west coast of the U.S., according to weapons experts.

North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-2 missile in 2006 -- the same year it tested a nuclear bomb -- but the missile failed after 40 seconds of flight, according to intelligence assessments.

"This new missile is likely to be an upgraded one," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. "We could even call it a Taepodong-3 missile."

A Taepodong-2 missile can carry a payload of up to 500 kilograms. The North declared last month through a prominent U.S. scholar it has "weaponized" 30.8 kg of plutonium, enough to create several atomic bombs.

The report on the missile transportation came after Japanese media quoted an intelligence official as saying a launch is imminent.

"The intelligence report by Japan appears grounded on facts," an official at the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Other defense officials said senior military commanders have begun discussing Seoul's response.

Sharply raising regional tension, North Korea said last week it is abandoning all peace accords signed to ease tension on its heavily armed border with South Korea.

Ties between the two sides have unraveled quickly over the past year since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office with a pledge to set North Korea's denuclearization effort as a precondition to reconciliation.

The countries remain technically at war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. The North has repeatedly warned this year of violence along a western sea border where bloody naval clashes erupted in 1999 and 2002.

"Pyongyang seems jittery," said Ryoo Kihl-jae, an expert at the University of North Korea Studies, adding Pyongyang is angling for quicker dialogue with Washington amid frayed ties with Seoul.

Ryoo said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who turns 67 this month and is rumored to have suffered a stroke last summer, appears to be pressing Obama to formulate his North Korea policy with urgency.

Obama, who took office in mid-January, has stressed the usefulness of direct dialogue with Pyongyang while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged a mix of bilateral and multilateral negotiations to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

"It's a matter of timing," said Kim Yeon-chul, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Korea University.

"North Korea is saying it can't wait until the U.S. decides on its new stance," he said, adding he does not believe a missile launch will help its negotiation leverage.

A South Korean spy agency official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said he is unsure whether the North would actually carry through with the launch.

"We can't determine yet whether this is an act of show designed to draw attention from the U.S. or if North Korea actually intends to pull off the launch," the official said.

The intelligence report of an imminent missile launch came after a U.S. expert told Yonhap News Agency that the North nearly completed the construction of a new rocket-launch facility.

"I understand North Korea could launch a rocket from the facility as early as this spring if the Paektusan-2, more commonly known as the Taepodong-2, is ready for testing," Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said on Jan. 29.

North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998, sending shock around the region. The six-nation nuclear talks, which include the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, are stalled over Pyongyang's refusal to accept a U.S. proposal on methods of verification.


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