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North Korea set to fire long-range missile, report says

The missile could be test-launched within weeks, perhaps during a meeting between Obama and South Korea's president.

June 02, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — North Korea has positioned its most sophisticated long-range ballistic missile at a launch site for a test that could come within weeks, a newspaper here reported Monday.

The regime, which conducted a nuclear test in May, raising tensions worldwide, could fire its missile June 16, when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is to meet with President Obama in Washington, according to the report.

In recent days, North Korea has ordered all shipping traffic out of waters off its west coast, a ban it said would be in effect through July.

The moves come as the U.N. Security Council contemplates new sanctions against North Korea for conducting an underground nuclear test and launching five short-range missiles last month.

The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper in Seoul reported that the new missile was set for launch from the Dongchang-ni launch site on North Korea's west coast and could be a version of the Taepodong-2 fired in April. The report, citing unnamed sources, said the missile had a range of up to 4,000 miles and could reach Alaska.

Both South Korea and Japan said Monday that a new test could come within weeks.

"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," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said at a news conference in Tokyo.

Without mentioning the new missile, South Korea's President Lee said in a radio address that Seoul would not tolerate further provocations.

The North's "second nuclear test last week brought great disappointment and shock not only to our people, but the entire world," Lee said. He echoed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' assertion that the world would not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

During a news conference Monday in Manila, where he was meeting with Filipino military officials, Gates confirmed that Pyongyang appeared to be readying a long-range missile. But "at this point, it's not clear what they're going to do."

Gates later left for Alaska, where he viewed a key part of the U.S. missile defense system, the ground-based interceptor silos.

Speaking after his tour of the silos, Gates said the North's test had solidified support for missile defense and that the program should be a "source of comfort" for the U.S. public.

"If there were a launch from a rogue state such as North Korea, I have good confidence that we would be able to deal with it," Gates said.

In the 2010 budget, he proposed cutting more than $1 billion from missile defense, halting the planned expansion of the interceptors from 30 to 44.

After the North Korean test, some experts have suggested rethinking those cuts. But Gates told reporters, "The 30 interceptors we have are adequate for years to come to deal with the North Korean threat as we see it developing."

He said North Korea would not be able to deploy a significant number of long-range missiles in a short period. If it decides to expand its capabilities, the U.S. will have "ample time" to add interceptors, he said.

South Korean newspapers have reported that a train carrying a long-range missile arrived at the base, 120 miles northwest of Pyongyang, where a launch pad has been set up. The reports speculated that leader Kim Jong Il might visit the site soon.

On Friday, Pyongyang's state-run news agency said the nation had "a right to conduct as many nuclear tests or missile launches as it wants in the event that the supreme interests of the state are infringed upon."

Analysts say Pyongyang may be looking to disrupt the summit between Lee and Obama, who will discuss the ongoing crisis on the peninsula. Pyongyang's last rocket launch, in April, was timed to coincide with an international summit in Europe.

Choi Choon-heum, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said an ICBM launch is the next step in the North's goal to become a formidable power. "North Korea gained confidence from mid-range missiles," he said. "Now it is moving on to the long one."

Other analysts agreed that a missile launch appeared certain if the United Nations lays out new sanctions.

"North Korea has said that if the U.N. Security Council agrees on sanctions, it would stage a nuclear test or missile test," said Paik Hak-soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at Sejong Institute near Seoul.

"They think this is their chance to test-fire an ICBM. They're thinking: Let's get a status of a nuclear state. And besides that, we can achieve a capability for the ICBM."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Manila and Alaska and Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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