North Korea Puts Long-Range Missile on Launch Pad, Reports Say
John M Glionna-The Los Angeles Times
Seoul - North Korea has positioned its most sophisticated long-range ballistic missile at a launch site for a test firing that could come within weeks, a newspaper here reported Monday.
Pyongyang, which last month raised tensions worldwide by conducting a nuclear test, could even fire its missile when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak meets President Obama in Washington on June 16, according to the report.
In recent days, North Korea has ordered all shipping traffic from waters off its west coast, a ban it said was effective through July.
The move comes while the U.N. Security Council contemplates new sanctions against North Korea's underground nuclear test and launching of five short-range missiles last month.
The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul reported that the newest missile set for launch from the Dongchang-ni launch site on North Korea's west coast may be a version of the Taepodong-2 rocket that Pyongyang fired in April.
The report, citing unnamed sources, said the missile has a range of up to 4,000 miles and could reach Alaska. Both South Korea and Japan acknowledged today that a new North Korean long-range missile test could come within weeks.
"Given that North Korea has carried out a nuclear test, we can't deny the possibility that they will further test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told a news conference in Tokyo.
Without mentioning the new North Korean missile, South Korean President Lee said in a radio address that his nation would not tolerate further provocations from Pyongyang.
"North Korea's second nuclear test last week brought great disappointment and shock not only to our people, but the entire world," Lee said, who echoed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' claim that the world would not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.
During a news conference in Manila, where he is meeting with Filipino military officials, Gates confirmed that North Korea appears to be preparing a long-range missile. But, Gates added, "at this point, it's not clear what they're going to do."
Following last month's nuclear test by North Korea, Seoul joined a U.S.-led initiative to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons - by North Korea or any other nation.
Pyongyang responded with anger, implying that it would no longer abide by the armistice that was signed to bring an end to fighting between north and south 1953. But Lee indicated Monday that Seoul would not back down.
If Pyongyang "refuses to take the path to dialogue and chooses the path of military threats and provocation, [South Korea] will never tolerate such threats."
"We sincerely hope for peace, but will sternly deal with any threats," said Lee, who is attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on the southern island of Jeju.
South Korean newspapers have reported that a train carrying a long-range missile has arrived at a missile base 120 miles northwest of Pyongyang, where a launch pad has already been erected. The press reports speculated that North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il might visit the site in early June.
In a release on Friday, Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency said that the nation "has a right to conduct as many nuclear tests or missile launches as it wants in the event that the supreme interests of the state are infringed upon.
"Such self-defensive measures do not run counter to any other international law," the release added. Analysts say Pyongyang may be looking to disrupt the June summit between Lee and Obama, who will discuss the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang's last rocket launch in April was timed for an international summit in Europe.
"North Korea could possibly launch its missile during the summit between South Korea and the United States," said Choi Choon-heum, senior research fellow at Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "The last rocket launch was in April when the G20 meeting took place."
Choi said an ICBM launch is the next step in North Korea's goal to become a formidable nuclear-armed Asian power.
"North Korea gained confidence from mid-range missiles," he said. "Now it is moving onto the long one."
Other analysts agreed that a missile launch appeared certain if the U.N. lays out new sanctions.
"North Korea has said that if the U.N. Security Council agrees on sanctions, it would stage a nuclear test or missile test," said Paik Hak-soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at Sejong Institute near Seoul. "They think this is their chance to test fire an ICBM. They're thinking: Let's get a status of a nuclear state. And besides that, we can achieve a capability for the ICBM."
In belligerent language, North Korea has continually defied the international community in recent weeks. The communist state is angry over sanctions enacted by the Security Council following its April 5 rocket launch. Pyongyang insists that it placed a communications satellite into space while intelligence reports suggest that the launch was a disguised missile test.
In recent days, the Korean Peninsula has become more tense with Pyongyang's nuclear test and the firing of five short-range missiles.
On Thursday, North Korea will also put on trial two U.S. journalists who were taken into custody in March, reportedly while on North Korean soil.
The reporters, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who work for a San Francisco-based television station, are accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."
News assistant Ju-min Park in the Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.