The United States warned North Korea Tuesday that any testing of its longest-range missile would be seen as “provocative,” amid signs the reclusive Stalinist state could be preparing a launch.
“North Korea’s missile activities and, you know, missile programmes are a concern to the region. There’s no secret there,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
“And a ballistic missile launch by North Korea would be unhelpful and, frankly, provocative.”
Earlier a US counter-proliferation official said there were signs that “the North Koreans are preparing for a Taepodong-2 launch,” in a move which would heighten spiralling tensions with South Korea and in the region.
“Whether it will carry out the launch or not is entirely unclear, as is the timing for a possible launch,” said the official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
A source quoted by Seoul’s Yonhap news agency said US and South Korean intelligence agencies had recently spotted a train carrying a long cylindrical object believed to be a Taepodong-2 missile which is theoretically capable of hitting the United States.
Launch preparations were likely to be completed in a month or two at a new west coast site, the source said. South Korea’s defence ministry and National Intelligence Service refused to comment.
Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper said spy satellites had detected a large container capable of housing a missile being delivered to the site at Tongchang, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) 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 remodelled version of the Taepodong-2.
The missile has a maximum range of 6,700 kilometres (4,150 miles), meaning it could theoretically target Alaska.
Analysts said the North was trying to push the new US administration of President Barack Obama 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 the communist state’s atomic disclosures should be verified.
Reports of the planned launch also come amid rising tensions with Seoul. The North announced Friday it was cancelling all peace accords with its neighbour and on Sunday warned of a possible military conflict.
Ryoo Kihl-Jae, of the University of North Korean Studies, told Yonhap 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 told AFP.
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 miniaturised 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.
In July 2006 it launched a Taepodong-2 missile from there but US officials said it failed after about 40 seconds.