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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

North Korea seen preparing test launch of upgraded long-range ballistic missile

North Korea is reportedly preparing to launch a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, South Korean intelligence officials said.   

Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported on Feb. 3 that U.S. spy satellites had detected a train carrying a long cylindrical object heading to the North's newly constructed launch pad on the west coast.

The newspaper said the North’s missile test could come in a month or two, citing frequent truck movements spotted at the site since last month.

A South Korean intelligence official confirmed the report, saying Seoul is "closely monitoring the situation."

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The object is believed to be a Taepodong-2 missile capable of traveling up to 6,000 kilometers, which means it could hit Alaska and the west coast of the United States, the official said.

He refused to disclose further details, but the Sankei Shimbun and Seoul's Yonhap News Agency said the missile-related movements were spotted in the North's newly constructed missile base in Dongchang-ri, about 40 kilometers [25 miles] south of the border with China.

Seoul's defense officials said the Dongchang-ri site, constructed late last year, is designed to launch missiles larger than the Taepodong-2, which the North test-fired in 2006 at its Musudan-ri site on the northeast coast.

They said the Dongchang-ri missile seems to be an upgraded version of Taepodong-2 with a range of up to 10,000 kilometers.

The report of the pending missile launch came after a U.S. expert said the North had nearly completed constructing a new rocket-launch facility.

"I understand North Korea could launch a rocket from the facility as early as this spring if the Paektusan-2, more commonly known as the Taepodong-2, is ready for testing," Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told Yonhap News Agency on Jan. 29.

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