SEOUL — Japan, the United States and South Korea are concerned that North Korea could test-fire a long-range ballistic missile without any prior warning in the same manner as the nuclear test on Jan. 6, as Pyongyang has shown signs of preparations for the test-firing of a missile.
According to observers, the North Korean moves also apparently aim to send a warning to the United States, China and other countries that have been discussing additional sanctions against the country at the U.N. Security Council in the wake of the nuclear test.
A research group on North Korean affairs at Johns Hopkins University, called 38 North, released on Thursday satellite photos taken on Monday of the Sohae satellite launching station in Tongchang-ri in northwestern North Korea.
Around the launch pad, transportation vehicles and workers could be seen.
According to a South Korean government source, it was confirmed recently that freight trains left missile factories in Pyongyang for Tongchang-ri.
But it is difficult to know the timing of the test-firing of a missile. According to diplomatic sources in Japan and South Korea, North Korea constructed a building in which a missile can be assembled indoors last year.
A facility to store missile fuel underground was also built, and thus it is now possible to inject fuel into a missile secretly. The launching pad and its surrounding facilities have always been curtained.
In past test-firings of missiles, the United States and some other countries could confirm via satellite the scenes of missile parts being assembled and fuel being injected by vehicles in operations that lasted for some days at the launching pad.
In the latest nuclear test on Jan. 6, North Korea did not notify the United States or China in advance, though the country had done so on prior occasions.
When North Korea test-fired missiles in the past, it designated areas where it prohibited ships of other countries from sailing. But this time, the South Korean government has voiced concern.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson said, "There is a possibility that (North Korea could) launch a missile without a prior notification of (what would be) a seriously provocative deed."
In the wake of the nuclear test on Jan. 6, member countries of the U.N. Security Council, such as Japan, the United States and China, are considering compiling a resolution for additional sanctions against North Korea. In principle, China also has agreed with the United States that it is necessary for such a resolution to be adopted.
A South Korean government source said North Korea is "intimidating the international community" by showing the signs of firing a missile. The source believed that North Korea had emphatically expressed its intention to continue the nuclear missile development even if additional sanctions are imposed.
In the past, North Korea has conducted missile launches and nuclear tests close together in time. This time, a nuclear test was done first.
An official of the South Korean government predicted that North Korea "may launch a missile in connection with the nuclear test."
On Thursday, Reuters reported that U.S. government sources said the next missile launch could be conducted within two or three weeks.
North Korea's aim is to make the United States recognize the country as a nuclear power by completing development of missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach the United States.
The estimated range of an upgraded Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile is about 10,000 kilometers, and thus they can reach the U.S. West Coast.
Last year, North Korea raised the height of the launchpad by more than 10 meters so that the range will be longer, and repeatedly conducted combustion experiments of the missile engines.