N. Korea finishes new missile facility: reports

Seoul (The Korea Herald/ANN) - North Korea established a sophisticated missile launch site on its west coast near its border with China late last year, in apparent preparation to test-fire a ballistic missile that could threaten U.S. territory, reports said.

The site in Dongchang-ri in North Pyeongan Province is five times larger than the one in Musudan-ri in North Hamgyeong Province where the communist state test-fired the Taepodong-2 missile in April 2009, according to the Chosun Ilbo.

The launch pad is 1.5 times larger than that of the Musudan-ri site. It is also 18 meters taller than the 32-meter-tall launch pad in Musudan-ri, enabling the test launch of intercontinental-range missiles, which are taller than 40 meters.

The North could assemble its missiles in a facility near the launch pad and move them to the launch pad by using a railway, the reports said. With this method, the missile launch would be hardly affected by inclement weather.

At the Musudan-ri site, the North assembled each stage of the rockets on the outdoor launch site, using a crane.

Reports also said that the fuel supply facility for the missiles is installed underground at the Dongchang-ri site to avoid detection by U.S. reconnaissance satellites. The site is also equipped with a facility to store liquid fuels for a long period.

Quoting unnamed government sources, the daily said that the North began constructing the site in 2002. The Musudan-ri site was established in 1992. The Ministry of National Defense refused to confirm the reports, citing security reasons.

The North appears to have chosen Dongchang-ri because its close proximity to China could make it difficult for South Korea and the United States to launch an attack in the event of an armed conflict with the belligerent state, observers said.

They also pointed out that as Dongchang-ri is only 70 kilometers away from the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the North could reduce the time and cost for delivering nuclear warheads to the new launch site - should it succeed in developing warheads small enough to be mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As a missile fired from Dongchang-ri could leave the Earth's atmosphere further west, the North could also avoid complaints from Japan, which has expressed concerns that the North could invade its airspace with the missile launch.

During his visit to China last December, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that North Korea, by its continuing development of missiles and nuclear weapons, was becoming a "direct" threat to the U.S., arguing that the North will have developed an intercontinental missile "within a five-year time frame."

Meanwhile, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told a forum in Washington that he saw "no signs that North Korea is preparing for near-term missile tests."

The commander also warned of further provocations from the North "within months" as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is revving up efforts to cede power to his youngest son Jong-un.

"When you package that together with the provocative actions that we saw in 2010, and the complexities of succession that are currently ongoing in North Korea, it should concern us all," the commander said.

"We may very well be facing the next provocation in months and not years."

Willard was talking about the North's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November and the sinking of the Cheonan in March that together killed 50 people last year.

The longest-range North Korean missile under development is the Taepodong-2 missile, presumed to have a range of more than 6,700 kilometers, far enough to hit parts of Alaska, but still incapable of reaching the rest of the U.S.

Both test launches of the Taepodong-2 missile failed. In July 2006, the missile exploded in the air right after lift-off. In April 2009, what it claimed to be a satellite launch also ended in failure after the rocket fell into the Pacific Ocean after traveling about 3,200 kilometers.

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