The nuclear standoff between North and South Korea is elevated to a new level as North Korea appears to be preparing for a long-range missile launch that could possibly reach the United States, according to South Korea's Yonhap News.
North Korea is also preparing to test-fire three to four mid-range missiles at the same time, an unnamed national lawmaker who was briefed by defense officials told Yonhap News today.
That would allow the missile to reach Alaska or to strike U.S. bases on the Pacific island of Guam.
According to South Korea's daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo, citing an unnamed government official, North Korea had completed production of at least three ICBM-standard missiles as of last year.
One was fired on April 5 that reportedly flew 1,900 miles, a bit short of its capacity of 2,300 miles, from Musudan-ri, at the northeastern tip of the Korean peninsula.
Recent satellite images indicate that a second ICBM has been transported to a new Dongchang-ni facility on the west coast, 124 miles from Pyongyang. Construction of two launch pads is underway and both are reportedly automated and modernized.
"Among many sites, North Koreans chose this place for a good reason," says Young-Tae Jeung, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "The place is closer to China. That means if the United States decides to militarily strike the area, it will have to take China into consideration."
Analyst views on exactly when the ICBM will be launched varies from "within in a week" to "around June 16 summit in Washington between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama," Chosun Ilbo reported.
There is "a high possibility of North Koreans still having one or two left in stock," according to the newspaper.
Analysts also warn that the automation of the launch pad poses a grave threat because from the moment North Korea decides to launch the ICBM to the time of its actual launch, it will only be a matter of days, not weeks as it had been in the past. This gives little time for the outside world to prepare for interceptions, analysts say. The previous Musudan-ri facility was manually operated, which is why the test-fire took place 12 days after the long-range missile was spotted on the launch pad.
Another concern is the new facility's proximity to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear power plant, just 43 miles away.
"From their point of view, it will be more convenient to be closer to Yongbyon, once they complete the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile," said Choon-Geun Lee, director at the Science and Technology Policy Institute.
In response, South Korea's navy bolstered defenses on Tuesday near its west sea border with North Korea. A high-speed vessel armed with guided missiles, a 440-ton Yun Yeong Ha, was deployed after intelligence reported that the North Korean military has been conducting intensified naval landing exercises and has ordered its troops to double their ammunition.
North Koreans have already dug an underground tunnel around the Dongchang-ni area, confirmed in 1998, according to Chang Kwoun Park, director of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
"We can't rule out the possibility that they have continued to build this," Park said.