WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea is making plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States and the launch could come soon, U.S. officials said on Monday.
One official told Reuters there was some debate over whether Pyongyang would follow through on the preparations with an actual test but a second official said a launch could happen within weeks.
Japanese media have reported there have been signs of North Korea making preparations to test a multiple-stage Taepodong 2 missile since early May.
It would be Pyongyang's first test of a long-range missile since it stunned the world in August 1998 by firing a Taepodong over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean.
Washington is discussing how it would respond to a test, and the United States and Japan have moved "assets" into position to monitor and collect data on any launch, U.S. officials said.
"We do not discuss specific mission or future operation details; however as stated in March 2004, the U.S. Navy will deploy in the Sea of Japan, on a virtually continuous basis, a guided missile ship to serve as a long-range surveillance and tracking platform," a Pentagon official said.
National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones refused to "speculate about intelligence matters" but noted U.S. concerns about North Korea's missile program are well known.
"North Korea should abide by the long-range missile test moratorium it has observed since 1999 and return to the six-party talks to negotiate steps to implement the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, in which North Korea agreed to abandon all its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs," Jones said.
Another government official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitive subject, told Reuters: "There is no doubt about it ... they are engaged in missile test preparations completely consistent with launching a missile."
He said the North Koreans were at about step three of a 12-15 step process.
The second official said: "There are truly signs that they are going to go ahead with this .... within the next week or so."
The test preparations come as talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programs are stalemated and international attention has shifted to concerns that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Tehran says it is only seeks to produce peaceful energy.
Some American analysts believe North Korea, feeling ignored and angered at a U.S. crackdown that has frozen hard currency income from activities like counterfeiting, will carry out the test.
Also influencing Pyongyang's calculations is President George W. Bush's willingness to show flexibility to Iran even as he has held a tough line on North Korea, they said.
The United States joined five other major powers last week in offering Tehran a proposal to end the Iran nuclear crisis that includes elements denied Pyongyang, including light-water nuclear power reactors.
With Bush struggling with Iran, Iraq, and sinking public opinion polls, Pyongyang may feel "this is precisely the time to gin up a crisis and get the Chinese to drag America back to the negotiating table and try to sweeten the offer" to the North, a U.S. official said.
North Korea currently does not have an operational missile that can strike the United States.
U.S. intelligence estimates of the untested Taepodong 2's range have increased in recent years. The two-stage missile theoretically would be able to strike parts of U.S. territory and the three-stage version to hit "most of the continental United States," according to a study by the Monterey Institute's Center for Non-proliferation Studies.
But the study stressed the missile's "probable inaccuracy," and the fact that North Korea has not demonstrated it is able to make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit a missile warhead. It also questioned whether Pyongyang would have the resources and political will to produce in the near term a missile that could threaten the entire United States.