SEOUL // North Korea has shifted its most advanced long-range missile - capable of reaching Alaska - to a new west coast launch site near its border with China, reports said Monday, in a move that threatens to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang also banned ships from the waters off the west coast of North Korea through the end of July, reports said. The regime could fire the long-range missile as early as mid-June, around the time South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama hold a summit in Washington, the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul said, citing unidentified officials in Washington and Seoul.
The missile at the Dongchang-ni launch site on the north-west coast is believed to be a version of the Taepodong-2 rocket that the North fired on April 5, which it said at the timet was a satellite launch, newspapers in North Korea said. A new long-range missile launch would mark a significant escalation in tensions already running high after the North's April rocket launch and an underground nuclear test conducted a week ago. The UN Security Council has been discussing how to punish Pyongyang for the atomic blast.
North Korea also has custody of two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts." Their trial begins Thursday in Pyongyang. North Korea also has designated a large area off its west coast as a "no-sail" zone through the end of next month, an indication Pyongyang could stage armed provocations around the disputed sea border, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing unidentified intelligence officials. The paper said the North could launch the long-range missile in two weeks.
Seoul's Defence Ministry declined to confirm Monday's reports, saying it does not comment on intelligence matters. But a defence official confirmed Sunday that US satellites had detected preparations to transport a missile for a test launch. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, the government spokesman, said Monday that a long-range missile test from North Korea appeared possible. "Given that North Korea has carried out a nuclear test, we can't deny the possibility that they will further test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile," he said.
The North's Taepodong-2 rocket managed to fly about 3,200km on April 5. The missile being readied for a new launch is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, with a range of up to 6,500km, the JoongAng Ilbo reported. That would put Alaska within striking range. North Korea had threatened in late April to conduct nuclear and long-range missile tests, and restart its nuclear programme, if the Security Council failed to apologise for criticising its rocket launch. Carrying out its threat, Pyongyang conducted an underground atomic blast last week. On Friday, it also warned it would take further "self-defensive" measures if provoked by the Security Council. That threat was seen as referring to an ICBM test.
North Korea has been building the new launch site at Dongchang-ni for years. Last year, South Korean Defence Minister Lee Sang-hee told lawmakers that construction was about 80 per cent complete. The site is now near completion, reports said today. Pyongyang is believed to have weaponized enough plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs, though experts believe scientists have not yet mastered the miniaturisation technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead onto a long-range missile. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, prompting widespread condemnation and stiff UN sanctions.
Months later, the regime agreed to a disablement-for-aid pact signed by six nations, but that process has been stalled since last year. North Korea walked away from the negotiations in April. * AP