May 18, 2006

N.Korea may be preparing missile launch: reports

By George Nishiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) - North Korea may be preparing to launch a
long-range ballistic missile that could reach parts of the
United States, Japanese media reports said on Friday, but
Japan's government said it did not believe a launch was

Quoting unidentified South Korean government officials,
public broadcaster NHK said satellite pictures showed there
have been signs since early this month around a site in
northeastern North Korea that pointed to a possible firing in
the near future.

Analysts have said, though, that development of a
multiple-stage version of a ballistic missile that can take
payloads deep into the continental United States is years away.

Japan's top government spokesman, Shinzo Abe, said he could
not comment on specific security issues, but added, "At the
moment, we do not believe that a launch is imminent."

The latest reports come amid a deadlock in six-party talks
aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs, and ahead
of a visit to China next week by the chief U.S. negotiator to
the talks that involve the two Koreas, the United States,
Japan, Russia and host China.

North Korea has said in numerous official media reports
that it is building a nuclear deterrent to counter U.S.
hostility. The United States believes that North Korea has one
or two nuclear bombs and the ability to build more.

U.S. officials said on Thursday that Washington was open to
discussions with North Korea on a peace treaty at the same time
as the six-party nuclear talks, but that it must come back to
the negotiating table first.

North Korea has long demanded a peace treaty to replace the
armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean war.

Some experts detected in the U.S. stance at least a slight
change in emphasis designed to entice Pyongyang back to the
table and keep Asian allies from blaming Washington for the
moribund diplomacy.

NHK said the missile appeared to be a Taepodong-2, which
previous reports have said has a range of more than 6,700 km
(4,200 miles), making it capable of hitting Alaska with a light

Quoting Japanese government sources, Japan's Kyodo news
agency also said that a launch could be imminent and that the
missile was probably a Taepodong-2.

However, a report in March by the California-based Center
for Nonproliferation Studies, a non-governmental organization,
said North Korea did not have an operational missile that could
hit the continental United States.

That report said Pyongyang was working on a solid-fuel
missile, Taepodong-X, with a range of up to 4,000 km (2,500
miles) that could hit Japan as well as U.S. bases in Guam, but
North Korea has yet to demonstrate its reliability through a
test flight.

North Korea shocked the world in August 1998 when it fired
a Taepodong missile that flew over Japan before splashing down
in the Pacific Ocean.

NHK, quoting U.S. government officials, said if the missile
was a modified version of the Taepodong-2, it could have a
range of 15,000 km (9,300 miles), which would cover all of the
United States.

U.S. officials have said the North is developing
longer-range missiles that could hit the continental United

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul)