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Report says N Korea preparing to test-fire long-range missile

Taepodong-2 missile test failed in 2006. Wikipedia image

SEOUL (BNS): The US President Barack Obama may be faced with an unprecedented task if South Korean intelligence sources are to be believed. that North Korea appears to be preparing to test-launch an intercontinental missile that could further fuel tensions in the region.

Yonhap news agency quoting a source reported that the US and South Korean intelligence agencies have recently spotted a train carrying a long cylindrical object believed to be a Taepodong-2 missile.

The source was quoted as saying that launch preparations are likely to be completed in a month or two, even as Seoul's defence ministry and National Intelligence Service refused to comment on the report.

The intelligence report of an imminent missile launch came after a US 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, was quoted as saying on Thursday last.

An agency reported that several analysts are of the opinion that North Korea may stage an event such as a long-range missile launch to test the resolve of the new US administration.

Yonhap quoted weapons experts as saying that Taepodong-2 missiles are capable of travelling up to 6,000 km, meaning they can reach as far as Alaska and the west coast of the US. They can carry a payload of 500 kg.

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, the agency said.

In January, North Korea had declared through a prominent US scholar that it had "weaponised" 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 was imminent.

The South Korean news agency without naming the Ministry of National Defence official stated that the intelligence report by Japan appears grounded on facts. Meanwhile, other defence officials said senior military commanders had begun discussing Seoul’s response.

Yonhap reported that North Korea announced last week that it was abandoning all peace accords signed to ease tension on its heavily armed border with South Korea.

The ties between both Koreas declined over the last one year since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office with a pledge to set North Korea's denuclearisation effort as a pre-condition to reconciliation. Both nations technically remain at war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in truce rather than a peace treaty. The North has repeatedly warned of violence along the western sea border where bloody naval clashes erupted in 1999 and 2002.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University here has said that this new missile is likely to be an upgraded one. “We could even call it a Taepodong-3 missile,” Yu-hwan said.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, an expert at the University of North Korea Studies was quoted by Yonhap as saying that Pyongyang seems jittery and looking for quicker dialogue with Washington amidst tension running high with its neighbour.

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

Meanwhile, Obama, who assumed office last month, has called for a direct dialogue with Pyongyang while the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for bilateral and multilateral negotiations to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programmes.

“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 US decides on its new stance,” he said, adding he does not believe a missile launch will help its negotiation leverage, the agency quoted him as saying.

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