North Korea seems to be preparing to test-fire its longest-range missile, reports said yesterday, a move that would heighten tensions amid stalled disarmament talks and icy relations with South Korea.
A source quoted by Seoul’s Yonhap news agency said US and South Korean intelligence agencies have recently spotted a train carrying a long cylindrical object believed to be a Taepodong-2 missile.
Launch preparations are likely to be completed in a month or two at a new west coast site, the source said. The defense ministry and National Intelligence Service refused to comment.
Japan’s Sankei Shimbun said spy satellites had detected a large container capable of housing a missile being delivered to the site at Tongchang, about 40km south of the border with China.
The paper said frequent truck movements had been spotted at the site and launch preparations could be completed in one or two months for what could be a remodeled version of the Taepodong-2.
The missile has a maximum range of 6,700km, meaning it could theoretically target Alaska. Analysts said the North is trying to push the new US administration back to the negotiating table and to strengthen its bargaining position.
Nuclear disarmament talks with the North, involving the US and four regional powers, are deadlocked over how Pyongyang’s atomic disclosures should be verified.
Reports of the planned launch also come amid rising tensions with Seoul. The North announced on Friday it was canceling all peace accords with its neighbor and on Sunday warned of a possible military conflict.
Ryoo Kihl-jae, of the University of North Korean Studies, told Yonhap that Pyongyang was angling for quicker dialogue with Washington amid frayed ties with Seoul.
Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said there would be a significant time gap between preparations and any launch.
“North Koreans seek warmer ties with the Obama administration, not strained relations, at the beginning,” he said.
Baek said the North wanted to get the attention of the US administration and gain the upper hand in upcoming negotiations with it.
North Korea staged an atomic test in 2006 and is thought to have enough plutonium for six or so bombs. Experts differ on whether it has miniaturized a bomb that could fit on a missile.
“I don’t think the North Koreans are yet capable of producing a sophisticated nuclear warhead device to fit on a long-range missile,” Baek said.
North Korea sparked regional alarm in 1998 by launching a shorter-range Taepodong-1 missile over Japan from its east coast launch site at Musudan-ri.