TOKYO • North Korea may be preparing a ballistic missile launch from a base on its east coast, in addition to its announced plans to fire a space rocket, Japan's public broadcaster reported.
Japan's NHK television, citing diplomatic sources it did not identify, reported yesterday that it has been "confirmed that a mobile launch pad in North Korea's eastern coastal area was on the move".
As a ballistic missile is on the launch pad, it is possible that Pyongyang is preparing a launch there, the report added.
NHK did not say whether it was a long- or short-range missile.
Pyongyang's announcement on Tuesday of its rocket plan was greeted by a global chorus of concern, with sharp criticism from South Korea, Japan and the United States, already angry over the North's fourth underground nuclear test on Jan 6.
The North said it plans to launch a satellite-bearing rocket from its Dongchang-ri base in the country's north-west between Feb 8 and 25, which is around the time of the Feb 16 birthday of the late leader Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
United Nations sanctions prohibit North Korea from any use of ballistic missile technology, and such a launch would amount to another major violation of UN Security Council resolutions following last month's fourth nuclear test.
The North insists its space programme is purely scientific in nature but the US and its allies, like South Korea, say the rocket launches are aimed at developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the US mainland.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said on Wednesday that the US military is keeping a vigilant eye on North Korea's missile and nuclear programmes, and is continually expanding its defences against a possible attack by Pyongyang.
Mr Carter said the US is on track to expand the number of ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska and Hawaii to 44 from 30, and improve their quality, but no further interceptor expansion is planned for now.
The Defence Secretary spoke to reporters after a visit to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, where he said US Marines and other military forces stand ready to "fight tonight" on the Korean peninsula, part of a strategy aimed at deterring North Korea from ever launching an attack on the US. He said the US military is also working hard to improve the reliability of the existing ground-based interceptors.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye yesterday said that the North's planned rocket launch could "never be tolerated", as her Defence Ministry vowed to shoot down any missile that threatened its territory.
"The fact that North Korea said it will launch a long-range missile, following its nuclear test, is a threat to peace on the Korean peninsula and to the world, and should never be tolerated," said Ms Park.
Russia yesterday urged North Korea to avoid escalating tensions, expressing "grave concern" over the announcement.
Japan has also vowed to shoot down any missile that threatened its territory.
China, which is North Korea's chief diplomatic ally and which dispatched a senior official to North Korea this week, has echoed the international concerns.
While its patience has been stretched thin by Pyongyang's refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions, China's overriding concern is a collapse of Mr Kim Jong Un's regime and the possibility of a US-allied unified Korea on its border.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS