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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

North Korea Missile Fueled For Launch

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Washington: North Korea has finished fueling a long-range missile, moving a key step closer to a test launch, The New York Times reported late Sunday. US officials concluded that North Korea had completed the fueling of the Taepodong 2 missile believed capable of reaching the United States after examining satellite images, the Times wrote on its website.

"Fueling a missile is generally considered an irreversible step" toward launch, the Times said.

"Yes, looks like all systems are 'go' and fueling appears to be done," the daily quoted an unidentified US official as saying.

"A second senior official, who declined to speak on the record for similar reasons, also indicated that the United States believed the missile had been fueled," the Times reported.

The paper said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Beijing over the weekend to press Pyongyang to cancel plans to fire the intercontinental ballistic missile.

It also reported that State Department officials had telephoned North Korean delegates at the United Nations in New York to warn against a launch. The direct contact was unusual but one unnamed senior administration official told the paper that "we needed to make sure there was no misunderstanding."

Reports of the imminent test have drawn warnings from the United States, Japan and South Korea, who are concerned that North Korea is pushing forward with its nuclear weapons program amid talks to convince it to give up the weapons.

Japanese officials were quoted as saying Sunday that a test was unlikely.

Pyongyang, which declared last year it had nuclear weapons and is boycotting US-backed talks on the crisis, shocked the world in 1998 by firing a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean.

Japan's top security officials met early Monday and renewed warnings that Tokyo was ready to impose sanctions on the impoverished dictatorship if it carried out a test.

"If North Korea test-launches a missile, naturally Japan and the United States will take stern measures," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the government spokesman, suggesting the possibility of economic sanctions.

Japanese officials are exchanging information "around the clock" on a possible launch of the Taepodong-2, which has a range of 3,500 to 6,000 kilometers (2,200 to 3,750 miles), said defense chief Fukushiro Nukaga in Tokyo.

North Korea has shunned six-nation disarmament talks since November, demanding that the United States lift financial sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over alleged counterfeiting and money-laundering.

North Korea watchers have speculated that Pyongyang may be craving a return to the world stage while the United States is refusing to budge on sanctions and focusing instead on ending Iran's nuclear drive.
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