Japanese and U.S. reconnaissance information indicates that North Korea might be preparing to test-fire either a Nodong or Taepodong ballistic missile, Japanese government sources said Thursday.
But the data, gathered mainly from radio and U.S. reconnaissance satellites around the middle of last week, could also be interpreted as indicating a forthcoming missile engine combustion test, the sources said.
Tokyo has accordingly set up an ad hoc office at the Prime Minister’s Office and has dispatched aircraft, an Aegis-equipped destroyer and other vessels to the Sea of Japan to gather further information.
On Thursday morning, the government tasked Seiken Sugiura, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Takeshi Noda, deputy chief Cabinet secretary for crisis management, and senior officials of related agencies and ministries with gathering and analyzing the information.
But one government source rejected the possibility of North Korea moving to test-fire a ballistic missile, with Tokyo and Pyongyang having just agreed to hold bilateral working-level talks on the abduction issue beginning Saturday in Beijing.
“At this moment, it is of no advantage to North Korea to launch a missile as it could make the country completely isolated from the international community,” the source said. The source also said that Pyongyang would not test fire a missile due to its involvement in the six-nation dialogue framework aimed at resolving the North’s nuclear ambitions. The six nations involved in the framework are China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, upon his return Thursday night from an 11-day tour of Brazil, Mexico and the United States, said North Korea is unlikely to test-fire a ballistic missile.
“I think the possibility of launching one is low.” he said.
Speaking to reporters outside his official residence, Koizumi stressed the need to continue pressing North Korea to refrain from firing missiles, as promised by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during their Pyongyang summit in September 2001.
According to the sources, both the Japanese and U.S. governments have analyzed the reconnaissance information and photos. They have detected movements such as vehicles and troops gathering at a missile base in the northeastern part of North Korea.
Activity around the base intensified Tuesday, the sources said.
North Korea conducts regular engine-combustion tests, including two detected in April, they said.
In light of the intensified nature of the activity this time, however, the Defense Agency has taken precautionary action by dispatching the Aegis-equipped destroyer Myoukou and EP-3 electronic reconnaissance aircraft to the Sea of Japan.
Japan and the United States suspected last week that North Korea could carry out a combustion test for a modified Nodong medium-range ballistic missile or a Taepodong-2 long-range missile this week, the sources said.
But with the number of vehicles and troops involved surpassing that of previous tests, Japan and the U.S. raised the alert and monitoring level to that of a possible missile-firing test, they said.
A Nodong missile has a range of between 1,300 km and 1,500 km and can strike practically any location in Japan.
A Taepodong has a range of between 3,500 km and 6,000 km.
In Seoul, Defense Ministry spokesman Nam Dae-Yeon confirmed that the South Korean and U.S. militaries have recently detected missile-related activity in North Korea that is “probably part of its annual military drill.”
“But if the situation progresses,” he said, “we cannot rule out the possibility of a missile launch, so South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are working together closely to follow the movements in the North.”
One Japanese government source said there are two possible scenarios — neither of which involves Pyongyang actually test-firing a missile.
One involves North Korea merely intensifying its verbal attacks on Japan, stating that Tokyo is upping its threats aimed at Pyongyang. The other involves North Korea conducting an engine-combustion test.
North Korea pledged to continue its moratorium on missile testing beyond 2003 in the Pyongyang Declaration signed by Kim and Koizumi during Koizumi’s first visit to Pyongyang in September 2002.
The two leaders reconfirmed this commitment when they met again last May in Pyongyang.