SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea may be preparing to use the site of its previous ballistic missile launches on the east coast to fire its longest range missile, possibly toward Japan, news reports said on Wednesday.
The missile reports follow threats directed at Seoul and Washington, which analysts said are meant to intimidate conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and grab the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted government sources as saying that a large object suspected to be part of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile was being transported to the missile site on North Korea’s east coast.
“The test site on the east coast means the missile will likely be fired over Japan and in the direction of the United States,” Chosun Ilbo quoted the source as saying.
The Taepodong-2 is supposed to have a range that could eventually take it as far as Alaska, but has never flown successfully.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a government source as saying the object could be headed for an east coast test site in the town of Musudan-ri, or a newly built site on the west coast, near China, or to an unidentified third location.
General Walter Sharp, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, called on North Korea to stop its provocations, while a senior South Korean lawmaker warned a launch could come soon.
“North Korea will definitely fire a missile within a month at the earliest,” Kim Hak-song, head of the parliament’s defense committee, told the Maeil Business Newspaper.
“If the United States shows little interest after the launch, North Korea could test fire another one around May.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had told a senior Chinese official visiting Pyongyang last month that he wanted to watch how the new Obama administration would act, Kyodo news reported on Wednesday. It gave no sources or other information.
North Korea fired a ballistic missile from Musudan-ri in 1998 that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. A Taepodong-2 launched from there in 2006 reportedly failed less than a minute into flight.
North Korea, which has a history of conducting diplomacy with bluster and brinkmanship, knows its missile facilities are monitored by spy satellites, and that it can put pressure on the United States and its allies simply by moving missile parts.
It takes North Korea about a month or two to prepare a Taepodong-2 for launch, which could be Pyongyang’s deadline for when it expects something positive from Seoul or Washington, analysts said.
“If North Korea were to successfully launch a Taepodong missile, it would significantly alter the threat environment to the U.S. and its Asian allies,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation.
North Korea, which tested a small nuclear device in 2006, is seen as one of the greatest threats to regional security. In 2007, it started to disable a nuclear plant that makes arms-grade plutonium as a part of an international disarmament-for-aid deal.
But experts say they do not believe it has the technology to miniaturize an atomic weapon to mount on a missile as a warhead.
North Korea is directing much of its venom toward the conservative South Korean president, who ended this left-leaning predecessors’ policy of unconditional aid to the impoverished North when he took office last year.
“It is as clear as noonday that inter-Korean dialogue can never be resumed as long as the crafty political swindler remains in power as his deeds do not agree with his words,” North Korea’s state media said on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Rhee So-eui; Editing by Paul Tait