SEOUL - Japan has detected radio signals suggesting North Korea may be preparing another ballistic missile launch in the coming days, although such signals are not unusual and satellite images did not show fresh activity, government sources said Tuesday.
After firing missiles at a pace of about two or three a month since April, North Korean launches paused in September, after it fired an intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido.
“This is not enough to determine (if a launch is likely soon),” one source said.
The government, however, has been on alert after intercepting the radio signals, with one official saying the North could launch a missile “within the next few days.”
But because satellite images have not shown a missile or a movable launchpad, the signals may only be related to winter training for the North Korean military, the sources said.
North Korea is pursuing its nuclear weapons and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. It has lobbed two missiles over Japan.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing a South Korean government source, also reported that intelligence officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan had recently detected signs of a possible missile launch and have been on higher alert.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters Tuesday that there have been “noteworthy” movements from the North since its last missile launch in mid-September, but added that there was no hard evidence of another nuclear or missile test.
“North Korea hasn’t been engaging in new nuclear or missile tests but recently we’ve seen them persistently testing engines and carrying out fuel tests,” said Cho at a media event in Seoul. “But we need some more time to see whether these are directly related to missile and nuclear tests.”
Asked about the media reports, Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning told reporters the United States continued to watch North Korea very closely.
“This is a diplomatically led effort at this point, supported by military options,” he said. “The Republic of Korea and U.S. alliance remains strong and capable of countering any North Korean provocations or attacks.”
Two U.S. government sources familiar with official assessments of North Korean capabilities and activities said that while they were not immediately familiar with recent intelligence suggesting that North Korea was preparing to launch a new missile test, the U.S. government would not be surprised if such a test were to take place in the very near future.
Other U.S. intelligence officials noted North Korea has previously sent deliberately misleading signs of preparations for missile and nuclear tests, in part to mask real preparations, and in part to test U.S. and allied intelligence on its activities.
South Korea’s Cho said North Korea may announce the completion of its nuclear program within a year, as it is moving faster than expected in developing its arsenal.
North Korea defends its weapons programs as a necessary defense against U.S. invasion plans. The United States, which stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, denies any such intentions.
Amid the North Korean nuclear threat, Hawaii emergency officials announced Monday that the island state would this week resume monthly testing of its Cold War-era nuclear attack warning sirens for the first time in about 30 years, in preparation for a potential missile launch by Pyongyang.
Wailing air-raid sirens will be sounded for about 60 seconds from more than 400 locations across the central Pacific islands starting at 11:45 a.m. on Friday, in a test that will be repeated on the first business day of each month thereafter, state officials said.
Monthly tests of the nuclear attack siren are being reintroduced in Hawaii in conjunction with public service announcements urging residents of the islands to “get inside, stay inside and stay tuned” if they should hear the warning.