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. North Korea may be preparing to test-fire missile: officials
SEOUL (AFP) Sep 23, 2004
US and South Korean military authorities are on alert as North Korea may be preparing to test-fire a missile capable of hitting most areas in Japan, military officials said Thursday.

"South Korean and US military authorities have recently noticed missile-related activities in North Korea," said South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Nam Dae-Yeon.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of the North test-firing missiles. South Korean and US authorities are closely following the movement in the North."

The United States has used satellites and spy planes to monitor North Korea's missile and nuclear development.

Japan was also on alert, with a task force set up at the prime minister's office to collect information, according to Japanese media.

Other South Korean officials, however, suggested the Stalinist state appeared to be conducting routine military drills at an undisclosed missile base.

"Recently activities related with missiles have been detected and it's highly likely that it could be a routine and annual exercise," Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-Jo said.

Yonhap news agency quoted an intelligence source as saying that military vehicles, soldiers and missile experts were converging around a launch site for the North's Rodong missile which has a range of some 1,300 kilometresmiles).

The source told Yonhap that the test was more likely to be a command post simulation than a real test-firing. North Korea carried out test-firing simulations two years ago.

In Tokyo the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said US and Japanese authorities had determined from satellite images and radio traffic that North Korea was preparing to launch a Rodong missile.

Japan's Defence Agency consequently sent an Aegis-equipped destroyer to the Sea of Japan (East Sea), the daily said.

Another destroyer is also in the Sea of Japan, with an EP-3 electronic reconnaissance aircraft keeping round-the-clock surveillance, Yomiuri quoted government sources as saying.

The Yomiuri said there was also a possibility of a Taepodong missile launch since Rodong bases are surrounded by underground silos containing Taepodong-II ballistic missiles with a range of 3,500-6,000 kilometres.

In one of Pyongyang's most searing threats against Tokyo, North Korea threatened Thursday to turn Japan into a "nuclear sea of fire" if it comes under attack from the United States.

"If the United States ignites a nuclear war, the US military bases in Japan would serve as a detonating fuse to turn Japan into a nuclear sea of fire," the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in a Korean-language article monitored by Yonhap.

Pyongyang stunned the world in August 1998 by test-launching over Japan a Taepodong-1 missile with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, claiming it was a satellite launch.

North Korea has already deployed short-range Scud missile and Rodongs with a range of 1,300 kilometers, while actively developing longer-range missiles.

Pyongyang declared a moratorium on missile tests in September 1999 and in May 2001 extended the decision until 2003.

The cash-strapped country, however, has refused to stop missile exports, a major source of hard currency earnings.

Washington has denounced Pyongyang as a leading global proliferator of weapons of mass destruction.

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