VIENNA/SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea deployed more than 10 missiles on its west coast apparently for an imminent test launch, a South Korean newspaper said on Thursday, and Pyongyang halted U.N. monitoring of its nuclear complex.
The potentially destabilizing moves followed reports that the United States had offered to remove North Korea from its terrorism blacklist this month in an effort to keep a nuclear disarmament pact from falling apart.
It would be an unprecedented test if North Korea fired all 10 of the surface-to-ship and ship-to-ship missiles. Intelligence sources quoted by the Chosun Ilbo paper said they thought the North may launch five to seven of them.
North Korea has forbidden ships to sail in an area in the Yellow Sea until October 15 in preparation for the launch, an intelligence source told the paper.
A South Korean defense ministry official declined to comment on the report but said the government had no indication of unusual activity in the North.
The United States urged North Korea not to do anything, including launching missiles, that would make matters worse. “We would urge North Korea to avoid any steps that increase tension on the peninsula,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
He said actions by Pyongyang in the last month had not been helpful, but added: “What they have done thus far is reversible. They can take a different set of decisions. We urge them to do so.”
The halt to U.N. monitoring throughout the Yongbyon nuclear complex was a significant step toward scrapping the pact to dismantle its atomic bomb programed, officials and diplomats said at the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has today informed IAEA inspectors that effective immediately, access to facilities at Yongbyon would no longer be permitted,” IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said in a statement.
“The DPRK also stated that has stopped its disablement work, which was initially agreed upon within the Six-Party Talks,” he said.
“Since it is preparing to restart the facilities at Yongbyon, the DPRK has informed the IAEA that our monitoring activities would no longer be appropriate. IAEA inspectors will remain in Yongbyon pending further information by the DPRK.”
Two weeks ago, the reclusive Stalinist state expelled the monitor team from Yongbyon’s plutonium-producing plant, kernel of its atom bomb capability, and vowed to start reactivating the Soviet-era facility shortly.
At the time, Pyongyang let the IAEA continue verifying the shutdown status of other parts of Yongbyon. The IAEA’s tools included surveillance cameras and seals placed on equipment.
Exactly two years ago, North Korea alarmed the world by conducting its first nuclear weapon test.
The pact appeared to unravel last month after Pyongyang, angry at not being removed from a U.S. blacklist of sponsors of terrorism, vowed to rebuild the largely dismantled Yongbyon.
North Korea has a history of timing its missile launches during periods of increased tension or negotiation to signal a hard line, analysts say.
U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill visited Pyongyang last week in a bid to convince North Korea to return to a disarmament-for-aid deal and halt plans to restart an aging nuclear plant that makes bomb-grade plutonium.
Kyodo news agency, quoting unidentified Japanese government sources, said Hill agreed that Washington would not make verification of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment programed
or proliferation activities a condition of delisting.
The United States suspects North Korea has a parallel uranium enrichment programed in addition to its plutonium-producing reactor in Yongbyon and that it has proliferated nuclear technology to Syria.
The United States put North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism for the 1987 midair bombing of a South Korean airliner over the Andaman Sea that killed 115 people.
Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said he had not seen any increased military activity in North Korea, “nor have we responded in any way with any military posture changes.”
Reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul, Linda Sieg and Yoko Kubota in Tokyo, Mark Heinrich in Vienna, Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by David Storey