SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Speculation has emerged that North Korea is preparing for another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, reported US media.
US broadcaster CBS reported on Tuesday (Jan 2) that North Korea appears to be in the early stages of another ICBM launch, with missile activity spotted at the same location where it last conducted its third ICBM test in November.
NBC News, citing anonymous military officials, reported on Tuesday that North Korea's first missile launch of 2018 is possible, if not likely, in the coming days.
One official said that the launch could happen mid-week, while another official described the timeline as the "short term".
The reports came amid high expectations for a thaw in inter-Korean relations in the run-up to the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics as North Korea on Wednesday reopened a suspended inter-Korean communication channel between the two Koreas at the truce village of Panmunjeom.
The South Korean government has made a proposal to North Korea that it is willing to postpone its annual joint military drill with the US until after the Winter Olympics and the Paralympics on the condition that North Korea suspends its missile and nuclear tests.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the US government was hearing reports about North Korea's potential launch, according to Reuters, although she gave no details of the missile test preparations.
"I hope that doesn't happen. But if it does, we must bring even tougher measures to bear against the North Korean regime," Haley said.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in his New Year's address on Monday, issued fiery nuclear threats against the US, suggesting the "nuclear button was always on his desk", while sending a rare overture to Seoul.
In his nationally televised New Year's speech, the young leader claimed the country had mastered full-fledged nuclear force and deterrence capability against the US, as the Trump administration threatened military actions on the North's nuclear and missile facilities.
Analysts said although they could not predict the exact timeline of the possible missile launch, another test appears to be "inevitable", given North Korea's efforts to overcome key technological hurdles to acquire fully capable ICBM technology.
"North Korea would fire its missile at a lofted range again to make sure it has overcome technical challenges to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power," said Shin Bum Cheol, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
North Korea claimed to have completed building its nuclear force after carrying out its latest ICBM launch on Nov 29. But the country has yet to prove that its nuclear warheads can survive re-entry into the atmosphere.
Launched from north of Pyongyang on a lofted trajectory, the Hwasong-15 ICBM reached an altitude of around 4,475km and flew 950km before landing in the waters between South Korea and Japan.