North Korea Tests Engine of Long-Range Missile, Report Says

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TOKYO, Sept. 16 -- North Korea has tested the engine mechanism for an intercontinental missile that might be able to hit major cities on the U.S. West Coast, according to an account published Tuesday in the South Korean press.

A previously unknown missile launch site on the west coast of North Korea was identified last week by Jane's Defense Weekly, which cited commercial satellite images. The facility has a mobile launch pad and a 10-story tower that would support the North's largest ballistic missiles, Jane's reported.

Appearing before a parliamentary committee in Seoul on Thursday, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said the launch site is about 80 percent complete. His remarks added to the growing body of information about the site in recent media reports.

If accurate, the reports indicate that while North Korea has pursued on-again, off-again negotiations with the United States and four other countries on abandoning its nuclear weapons program, it has continued to work on developing a long-range ballistic missile and is diverting scarce resources from a collapsing economy that has brought about chronic food shortages.

A 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution demands that North Korea "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program." The North must abandon its program in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," the resolution says.

The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that a U.S. reconnaissance satellite had detected a test earlier this year at the launch site of a long-range missile, presumably an updated version of the Taepodong-2 missile, which failed in a 2006 test firing. Chosun Ilbo was the first newspaper to report last week that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had collapsed in August.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul and South Korea's Defense Ministry declined Tuesday to confirm or deny the missile test report.

An "improved version" of the Taepodong missile might have a range of more than 6,200 miles, the Chosun Ilbo reported, putting Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles within reach. A previous version had a range of about 4,150 miles, which could reach Alaska.

In late June, the United States sent a ship carrying 37,000 tons of wheat to North Korea as part of an international operation to feed the more than 5 million North Koreans said by the U.N. World Food Program to be in urgent need of food aid this year. The U.S. government has pledged to provide most of that food.

Analysts in Seoul were not surprised by reports of North Korea's continuing missile development, which they saw as distinct from the country's nuclear ambitions.

"This is expected, because attention was focused on the nuclear issue," said Dong Young-seung, a North Korea expert at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. "That left North Korea with room to make progress with its missile development without much sanction from the outside world."

Cha Du-hyeogn, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said that if North Korea does curtail its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and a reduction of diplomatic sanctions, government officials in Pyongyang will "feel very nervous." The missile program "is their only remaining leverage against an outside threat," he said.

The health of the North's leader remained in question this week after Kim failed to make his customary public appearance for Monday's Thanksgiving holiday.

Japan's Kyodo news agency reported from Beijing that Kim underwent emergency surgery performed with the help of five Chinese military doctors dispatched to Pyongyang at North Korea's request.

Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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