- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

SEOUL | North Korea appeared to be gearing up Wednesday for another long-range missile test, the latest in a series of provocative acts seemingly aimed at stoking tensions with South Korea and winning the attention of the new U.S. president.

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has declared it will scrap peace agreements with Seoul and warned of war on the Korean Peninsula. Reports that it could be preparing to test a missile capable of reaching the western United States have added to the anxiety.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Wednesday that a vehicle carrying radar equipment was seen moving to a launch site on the North’s eastern coast from a munitions factory near Pyongyang.

“It can be analyzed that the North is proceeding with a missile launch preparation in stages,” Yonhap quoted a South Korean government official it did not name as saying.

South Korean and Japanese media said last week that intelligence agents had spotted a train carrying a long, cylinder-shaped object - believed to be a long-range missile - to the launch site at Musudan-ni.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has played down reports of possible North Korean missile launch preparations, noting Tuesday that Pyongyang’s last such test in 2006 was a failure and that the U.S. could shoot down a North Korean missile “should we deem it necessary.”

Nevertheless, North Korea’s saber rattling has been interpreted as an attempt to grab President Obama’s attention; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit South Korea next week.

Mr. Obama has expressed willingness for direct talks with the North. The stalled multinational dialogue to disarm North Korea resumed late last year after the U.S. removed the country from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Those talks also involved China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman warned Wednesday that North Korea’s actions could disrupt the disarmament process.

“I think activities of this nature, should they be taking place, would be harmful to the ongoing efforts, the diplomatic efforts within the six-party talks,” Mr. Whitman said. “It’s always been our position that North Korea should refrain from provocative actions that might aggravate tensions in the region.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il meanwhile promoted close aides to key defense posts in a move apparently aimed at shoring up - and proving - his control over the military following a spike in tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Mr. Kim named a top military official, Kim Yong-chun, as minister of the People’s Armed Forces - a position equal to defense minister - and that he appointed Ri Yong-ho as chief of the military’s general staff.

Fears of political instability in the North deepened last year when Mr. Kim reportedly suffered a stroke and had brain surgery.

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