North Korea said to be preparing for ballistic missile launch

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea appears to be preparing to test-launch its longest range ballistic missileNorth Korea appears to be preparing to test-launch its longest range ballistic missile, media reports said on Tuesday, stoking tensions just days after the reclusive state warned that the Korean peninsula was on the brink of war.

North Korea, which typically carries out missile tests in times of political friction, last week said it was scrapping all agreements with South Korea in a move analysts said was aimed at pressuring Seoul and grabbing the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama.

The North, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, is seen as one of the greatest threats to regional security. But experts say they do not believe

Pyongyang has developed the technology to miniaturise an atomic weapon so it can be mounted on a missile as a warhead.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency and Japan’s Sankei Shimbun cited unnamed government sources as saying the North had been moving equipment used in the launch of its Taepodong-2 missile, which the test-fired in July 2006 only to see it fizzle and destruct a few seconds after leaving the launch pad.

A train carrying a large object had left a factory and was headed to the site of a newly constructed launch pad on the North’s west coast, Yonhap quoted an unnamed South Korean government source as saying.

“The object is suspected as being a Taepodong-2,” he said.

It will take North Korea at least a month or two to actually launch a Taepodong-2, the Sankei cited an unnamed Japanese government source as saying.

A security researcher at a South Korean state-run think tank said Pyongyang had two aims in carrying out a missile test.

“First, it helps the North to continuously develop and upgrade its long-range missiles. Second, they are seeking to send a political message,” said the researcher, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive subject matter.

MARKETS UNFAZED

Financial market analysts in South Korea, used to North Korean sabre rattling, paid little attention to the reports.

“Markets tend not to respond to North Korea issues as sensitively as political circles would,” said Hwang Keum-dan, an analyst at Samsung Securities.

“If they actually launch the missile, it may put pressure on sentiment, but only in the short-term.”

A South Korean Defence Ministry official said he could not comment on intelligence matters but added the South keeps a constant eye on the North’s military activities. Japanese government officials declined to comment.

The Taepodong-2 is designed to eventually have a range long enough to hit U.S. territory. Much of the preparation needed to get it ready can be seen by spy satellites.

North Korea already has more than 800 ballistic missiles that can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan, experts say.

The North’s bureaucracy works slowly to form policy and it may still be trying to figure out its approach to the new Obama team, analysts have said, making it easier for Pyongyang to direct its anger at Washington’s allies, including Seoul.

The North in recent months has repeatedly threatened to destroy the conservative government of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, which ended a decade of free-flowing aid to Pyongyang after taking office a year ago.

Lee and Obama agreed in their first conversation after Obama took office to cooperate on North Korea, the South’s presidential Blue House said in reporting a Tuesday telephone call.

Lee’s government has mostly ignored Pyongyang’s taunts.

The North has sharpened its rhetoric in recent days just as its leader Kim Jong-il, thought to have suffered a stroke in August, appears to be fully recovered.

Kim met a foreign envoy last month for the first time since his suspected illness and a U.S. intelligence source said last week that Kim, who turns 67 on February 16, was firmly in control.