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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story had a headline that incorrectly said a North Korean nuclear test was a possibility. North Korea is planning a missile test. This version has been corrected.

North Korean Missile Test a Growing Possibility

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North Korea's positioning of a rocket on its east coast launchpad ratcheted up tensions with Washington, which warned that pushing ahead with the launch would have serious consequences. Video by AP

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 27, 2009

SEOUL -- North Korea moved a long-range missile to a launchpad this week and plans to send it into space in early April in defiance of repeated international warnings.

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While North Korea has been making missiles to intimidate its neighbors for nearly half a century, what makes this launch particularly worrying is the increasing possibility -- as assessed by U.S. intelligence and some independent experts -- that it has built or is attempting to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop its growing number of missiles.

North Korea "may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile," Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this month in testimony prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

David Albright, a physicist and nuclear weapons expert who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, has written that North Korea is "likely able to build a crude nuclear warhead" for its midrange missiles that target Japan.

Experts agree that North Korea is probably years away from putting nuclear warheads on long-range missiles that could hit the United States.

"North Korea's nuclear strategy is to keep everyone confused, keep everyone wondering," Albright said.

The country's founding dictator, the late Kim Il Sung, created a military academy 44 years ago to "nurture" missile builders, ordering them to make weapons that could strike Japan and "prevent" the United States from meddling on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, has continued to nurture the missilemakers, who have built more than 200 Nodong missiles capable of hitting most of Japan.

The Kim dynasty's commitment to missiles continues to rattle nerves, with Japan and South Korea repeatedly protesting as North Korea moves closer to the planned launch of its new long-range missile.

North Korea says it plans to put a communications satellite into orbit, but that claim is widely viewed as a pretext for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2. The U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a Senate committee that a three-stage missile of this type, if it works, could strike the continental United States.

"Most of the world understands the game they're playing," Blair said, adding that North Korea "risks international opprobrium and hopefully worse" if the launch proceeds.

If the international community sanctions North Korea for the launch, Pyongyang threatened this week to abrogate an agreement with the United States and five other countries to abandon nuclear weapons in return for aid and other concessions. It has also threatened to go to war, if what it calls its peaceful research launch is shot down.


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