North Korea may be preparing for long-range missile launch

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during an award ceremony, on Jan 13, 2016.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during an award ceremony, on Jan 13, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL( REUTERS) - North Korea may be preparing to launch a long-range missile as soon as within a week, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported Thursday, citing an unnamed Japanese government official. The official said signs of possible preparations for a missile launch have been detected based on analysis of satellite imagery of the North's Tongchang-ri missile test site on its west coast.

Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Haguida told a news conference later on Thursday that his government would continue to co-operate with the United States and South Korea to urge North Korea to refrain from "provocative action" and comply with UN resolutions.

"Japan is always gathering and analysing information on movements concerning North Korea's missiles with "great interest"," said Mr Haguida.

The report comes amid discussions among U.N. Security Council members for fresh sanctions against Pyongyang after it conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan 6. North Korea is already under sanctions for its nuclear and missile programmes.

North Korea last conducted a long-range rocket launch in late 2012, successfully putting an object into orbit in what is believed by experts to be part of its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). North Korea is also seen to be working to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile, but many experts say it is still some time away from perfecting the technology.

The Japanese government source said a missile launch could occur in about a week at the earliest but provided no other details about the satellite imagery analyses.

South Korean Defence Ministry spokesperson, Kim Min-Seok, said officials were on guard for any changes in North Korea's previous behaviour.

"In the past, North Korea always fired a long-range missile ahead of a nuclear test. But since it didn't this time, we are concerned that it could launch one afterwards," he said.

Mr Kim also stressed that Pyongyang used to notify China and the U.S. before carrying out nuclear tests, though this time it has not.

"We believe that North Korea could launch grave provocations by surprise - without pre-warning - from now on," Mr Kim added.

The possible preparation of a missile launch also came after North Korea said it carried out a submarine-launched ballistic missile test in December.

Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed in Beijing on Wednesday on the need for a significant new U.N. Security resolution against North Korea but there were few signs of concrete progress. North Korea said on Jan. 6 that it exploded a hydrogen bomb, although the United States and other governments and experts voiced scepticism that it had made such a technological advance.