SEOUL: Signs of unusual activity have been detected in North Korea, the South’s unification minister said Tuesday, following reports that Pyongyang may be preparing for a ballistic missile test.
The North has stoked international alarm over its banned nuclear missile programme, but it has not staged a missile test since September 15, raising hopes that ramped-up sanctions are having an impact.
But South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited a government source as saying that a missile-tracing radar was switched on at an unspecified base on Monday, and there had been a flurry of telecom traffic.
Unification minister Cho Myoung-Gyon confirmed there had been “noteworthy activity in the North recently,” but said the Seoul government had to “wait and see whether it leads to an actual missile test or provocation.”
Aside from the recent movements, Pyongyang has also been conducting various engine tests and fuel tests even during the testing lull, Cho told foreign correspondents.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency also quoted sources as saying the Tokyo government was on alert after detecting radio signals suggesting North Korea might be preparing for a missile launch.
“North Korea might launch a missile within the next few days,” one of the sources was quoted as saying.
However, the Japanese sources also said that as satellite images have not shown any missile or moveable launch pad, the signals might only be related to winter training for the North Korean military.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un visited a new catfish farm northeast of Pyongyang, its state media said Tuesday, in the latest of a series of economic outings that have coincided with a lull in weapons testing.
In September the North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and staged an intermediate-range missile launch over Japan.
Cho said the frequency of North Korean activity tends to decline noticeably during the winter.
“If it launched a provocation, North Korea has to put its military on alert, but most of its troops are needed for manual labor for preparation of winter,” he said.
Other reasons behind the lull could be that Pyongyang simply needs more time to advance its missile program such as perfecting its re-entry technology, Cho said, or the North Korean leader could be focusing on boosting the economy.
While North Korea has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that apparently brings much of the US mainland into range, questions remain about whether it has mastered the re-entry technology to bring a warhead back through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Another factor could be that the North could be restraining itself due to a flurry of joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington mobilizing various US strategic assets, the minister said.
But tensions are expected to spike again as the United States and South Korea kick off a large-scale air force drill on Monday in a new show of force against the North.
The five-day exercise, Vigilant Ace, involves 12,000 US personnel and an unspecified number of South Korean service members flying more than 230 aircraft including F-22 stealth fighters and other cutting-edge weapons at US and South Korean military bases.
Pyongyang routinely condemns such exercises, labeling them preparation for war.
The US last week unveiled fresh sanctions that target North Korean shipping, raising pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
Pyongyang condemned the move as a “serious provocation” on Wednesday and warned that sanctions would never succeed. AFP