KOREA: Seoul vigilant over report of N. Korean missile launch

Kyodo News, NHK in Japan report activity around northeastern missile unit

Korea Times
Friday, May 19, 2006

By Jung Sung-ki

South Korea is trying to verify through diverse channels a report that North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range ballistic missile that could hit parts of the United States, but no concrete signs have yet emerged, the Defense Ministry said on Friday.

"We are trying to confirm the report's authenticity, but so far I don't believe it is highly trustworthy," a senior ministry official said, asking not to be named.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it is paying close attention to North Korea's missile reports. "Regarding the issue, our ministry has already been closely watching (the North)," a ministry official said, adding there has not been any credible intelligence of a missile being fired.

Another military source said that South Korean and U.S. military authorities detected some signs of activity near a missile unit in North Hamkyong Province earlier this week, but they are still analyzing whether North Korea is moving to launch a missile or if it is merely demonstrating against U.S. pressure to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

Earlier in the day, Japan's Kyodo News and public broadcaster NHK, quoting unidentified South Korean sources, said satellite pictures showed there has been activity around a site in northeastern North Korea, such as the movement of trailer trucks carrying what appeared to be missiles.

According to NHK, the missile could be a Taepodong-II ballistic missile that could reach as far as the U.S. mainland, citing unnamed U.S. government sources. The 32-meter-long Taepodong-II has a firing range of more than 6,700 kilometers (4,200 miles), making it capable of hitting Alaska with a light payload, experts say.

If the missile was a modified version of the Taepodong-II, it could have a range of 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles), which would cover the entire United States.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said his government didn't see any imminent danger of a missile launch. "In fact, we understand that it (the missile) has been brought to the site. But we are not sure about any subsequent moves."

The reports came amid a deadlock in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has refused to return to the multinational talks since last November, arguing the U.S. government must first remove sanctions it imposed over allegations of money laundering and counterfeiting by North Korean companies.

The talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

The move also came at a delicate time, as Washington appears to be changing its stance on the communist regime. U.S. officials said on Thursday that the White House could begin talks about a peace treaty on a parallel track with the six-nation talks on disarmament. The North has long demanded a peace treaty to replace the current armistice on the Korean Peninsula, signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

In 1998, North Korea stunned the region by test-firing a long-range Taepodong-I ballistic missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. A Taepodong missile is described as a two or three-stage ballistic missile with an estimated range of up to 4,000 kilometers (2,486 miles).

North Korea announced a moratorium on long-range missile tests in 1999 but has since test-fired short-range missiles many times, including two in early March.

In testimony to the U.S. Congress in March, Gen. B. B. Bell, commander of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), said North Korea was believed to be preparing to field a new ballistic missile capable of reaching Okinawa, Guam and probably Alaska.