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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Tokyo: North moving long-range missile to pad but launch not in offing


Staff writer

Foreign Minister Taro Aso confirmed Friday the government has information indicating Pyongyang has moved a long-range ballistic missile closer to a launchpad at a military base in northeastern North Korea, in apparent preparation for launch.

Asked if North Korea will actually launch the missile, which may be a Taepodong, Aso told a House of Representatives committee that the vehicle was not yet ready for launch because it had not yet been filled with liquid fuel.

"If (the fuel) is liquid, the start of (fueling) would mean an imminent launch," Aso told the committee. "But we cannot say anything about (a possible launch) at this stage, as fueling has not yet begun."

According to media reports, Tokyo learned of the preparations through satellite photos and other means that Pyongyang started moving large trailers at the beginning of May, bringing the 35-meter-long missile closer to the launchpad at a base in Hwadae County, North Hamkyong Province.

"We have known of this series of moves regarding the Taepodong missile," Aso said when asked to confirm the news reports at a meeting of the Lower House foreign affairs committee.

Separately, Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga played down the potential threat from the preparations, saying he sees no danger to national security, for now.

"It is our understanding that there is no imminent situation at this point," Nukaga told reporters Friday morning. He refused to confirm details of the information the government has on the preparations at the missile base, apparently to protect the secrecy of its intelligence-gathering methods.

Aso meanwhile said that if a launch occurs, it would violate the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration signed between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, in which the North pledged to maintain its moratorium on launching ballistic missiles.

"If the missile is launched, it would be a problem in view of this declaration," Aso said.

According the Defense Agency's annual defense policy report, Taepodong-2 missiles have a range of 3,500 to 6,000 km. This would allow them to reach as far as Alaska. If an improved version is developed, the range could be extended, the report said.

The news of the launch preparations comes amid a deadlock in the six-nation talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear threat, and ahead of a visit to China next week by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator at the talks, which involve the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.

Part of a ballistic missile launched by Pyongyang in August 1998 flew over Japan and came down in the Pacific Ocean, but North Korea maintains it was a rocket booster for a satellite and not a missile.



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