NKorea 'preparing missile'

2009-05-30 14:39

Panmunjom - Spy satellites have spotted signs that North Korea may be preparing to transport another long-range missile to a test launch site, South Korean officials said on Saturday, as the US defence secretary issued his harshest warning to the North since its recent nuclear test.

"We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia - or on us," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a regional defence meeting in Singapore. He said the North's nuclear programme was a "harbinger of a dark future", but wasn't yet a direct threat.

Since last Monday's nuclear blast, North Korea has test-launched six short-range missiles in a show of force and announced it won't honour a 1953 truce ending fighting in the Korean War.

The reclusive communist state appears to be preparing to move a long-range missile by train from a weapons factory near Pyongyang to its northeastern Musudan-ni launch pad, a South Korean Defence Ministry official said.

Images of the movements were captured by US satellites, said the official, who was not allowed to be identified when discussing intelligence matters.

North Korea will need about two weeks to complete the launch preparations, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified intelligence official.

Officials in Washington said on Friday they noticed indications of increased activity at the missile test site, but did not provide many details. They spoke on condition of anonymity because methods of gathering information about North Korea are sensitive.

Yonhap said the size of the missile was similar to a long-range rocket the North tested in April.

Experts have said the three-stage rocket has a potential range of more than 6 700km, putting Alaska within its striking distance.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said the North is likely to fire the missile shortly after the UN Security Council adopts a resolution criticising its recent nuclear test.

A partial draft resolution - obtained on Friday by The Associated Press - calls on all countries to immediately enforce sanctions imposed by an earlier UN resolution after the North's first nuclear test in 2006.

The sanctions include a partial arms embargo, a ban on luxury goods and ship searches for illegal weapons or material. They have been sporadically implemented, with many of the 192 UN member states ignoring them.

The draft would also have the Security Council condemn "in the strongest terms" the recent nuclear test "in flagrant violation and disregard" of the 2006 resolution.

China, which ignored the previous sanctions, has been unusually outspoken in its criticism of Monday's blast.

"As a close neighbour of North Korea, China has expressed a firm opposition and grave concern about the nuclear test," Chinese Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian said at the Singapore defence meeting.

North Korea says it conducted the nuclear test in self-defence. Its main Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned on Saturday that it "will deal decisive and merciless blows at the enemies who desperately run amok to dare pre-empt an attack on it", according to its official Korean Central News Agency.

Despite the rising tensions, the atmosphere was calm Saturday at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the heavily armed Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas.

The area is a cluster of blue huts inside the 248-kilometre-long DMZ that is jointly administered by the US-led United Nations Command and North Korea to supervise the cease-fire.

Some analysts say one of the aims of the North's nuclear and missile tests is to strengthen its regime and boost morale in the impoverished nation.

Rallies were being held across the country for citizens and soldiers who were celebrating the nuclear test, KCNA said on Saturday. It said speakers offered their "ardent congratulations" to nuclear scientists and engineers for bolstering the country's dignity.