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2009/02/05 10:59 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 40 (February 5, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Preparing to Test-fire Long-range Missile: Sources

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Intelligence reports have emerged that North Korea is preparing to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, in what some analysts say is another stern message aimed at Washington.

   South Korean and U.S. authorities have confirmed they have spotted what appears to be a Taepodong-2 missile being transported by train, according to a Seoul defense source.

   The source added there will likely be a launch in a month or two.

   Intelligence authorities are tracking the train, which was spotted late last month leaving a munitions factory south of Pyongyang for an unidentified location, a government source said.

   "The train could head to a missile base in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, or Musudan-ri in North Hamgyong Province," the source said, adding he could not rule out the possibility that the train could move to a third location.

   But on Feb. 4, South Korean defense officials said they last spotted what they believe to be North Korea's most advanced missile on the country's east coast, dampening speculation a launch may take place at a brand-new site on the opposite side of the country.

   A train carrying the object in question "was last seen stationed at the Musudan-ri site" in the northeastern region, an official at the Ministry of National Defense said. North Korea has test-fired two of its longest-range missiles there since 1998.

   Taepodong-2 missiles are capable of traveling up to 6,000 kilometers, meaning they can reach as far as Alaska and the West Coast of the U.S., according to weapons experts.

   Some analysts suspect the North's latest move is aimed at grabbing the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has yet to formulate its North Korea policy.

   "The Taepodong-2 missile is basically aimed at targets on the United States, so it would be a direct threat to the security of the United States. Regardless of the launch result, the missile would definitely draw U.S. attention," a Seoul government source said.

   Obama stressed during his election campaign the usefulness of direct dialogue with Pyongyang, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged a mix of bilateral and multilateral negotiations to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

   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.

  "This new missile is likely to be an upgraded one," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. "We could even call it a Taepodong-3 missile."

   A Taepodong-2 missile can carry a payload of up to 500 kilograms. The North declared last month through a prominent U.S. scholar it has "weaponized" 30.8 kg of plutonium, enough to create several atomic bombs.

   It remains unclear whether North Korea possesses the technology to make a nuclear device small enough for missile delivery.

   The information comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang warned on Jan. 17 that it would take an "all-out confrontation posture" against South Korea in retaliation against Seoul's hardline policy. The North said days afterward it is scrapping all inter-Korean peace accords and will regard as null and void an inter-Korean sea border, along which two bloody skirmishes occurred over the past decade.

   A South Korean spy agency official said he is unsure whether the North would actually carry through with its threat.

   "We can't determine yet whether this is an act of show designed to draw attention from the U.S. or if North Korea actually intends to pull off the launch," the official said.

   North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998, sending shockwaves around the region.

   The North has reportedly been constructing a new rocket-launch facility at Tongchang-ri, Cholsan, North Pyongan Province, which is larger than its main missile base at Musudan-ri on the eastern coast. The site, whose construction appears to be near completion, can be used for bigger missiles and satellite projectiles, according to South Korean data.

   Ties between the two Koreas have unraveled quickly over the past year since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office with a pledge to set North Korea's denuclearization effort as a precondition to reconciliation.

   Military experts in Seoul say it is highly likely Pyongyang will go ahead with the missile launch to prove its threats are not hollow -- an easier method of doing so than an engaging in an armed clash.

   "The missile is primarily aimed at escalating tension on the peninsula," said Kim Keun-sik, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies. "The North is trying to show that a rise in tension will do the South no good."

   Responding to the report on the North's potential test-fire, the U.S. warned that any such launch would be in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

   "Obviously, the testing of missiles by North Korea would be in violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in a daily news briefing.

   The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in July 2006 soon after North Korea test fired its first Taepodong-2, demanding the reclusive communist state halt its missile launches and banning all U.N. member states from becoming involved in the proliferation of missiles or any other weapons of mass destruction to and from Pyongyang.

   State Department spokesman Robert Wood also depicted any ballistic missile launches by North Korea as being "unhelpful and, frankly, provocative," saying, "North Korea's missile activities and, you know, its missile programs are of concern to the region. There's no secrets there."

   Neither Wood nor Morrell would confirm the reports of the North's ballistic missile launch, citing a policy not to comment on intelligence matters.

   Meanwhile, the top U.S. commander in South Korea urged North Korea to stop raising tension on the divided peninsula.

   "We're prepared for any contingency," Gen. Walter Sharp of the U.S. Forces Korea said in a speech on Feb. 4. "We watch North Korea along with the Republic of Korea very, very closely," he said, calling on Pyongyang to "stop the provocations that have been going on, whether it is declaring old agreements to be no longer valid or missile technology that they continue to develop."