With heightened concerns about nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, more than 40 countries joined forces Thursday to press the United States and others to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (search) so it can finally take effect.

They also urged all countries to continue a moratorium on nuclear explosions, including weapons tests, although they cautioned that would not have the same "permanent and legally binding effect" as the treaty.

The declaration came as Japan said it had intelligence indicating that North Korea (search) might be preparing to test fire a short-range missile that could reach most of the main Japanese islands, in what would be the latest provocation from the communist country.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who launched the initiative with Japan, Australia and the European Union, said there was a strong feeling in the world that the danger from nuclear weapons and their proliferation had not been adequately met.

"One of the most common and scary alternatives has been the threats of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, falling into the hands of terrorists," he said.

The United States has observed a nuclear testing moratorium (search) since 1992 but has not ratified the treaty, saying it needs to have periodic tests to maintain its arsenal and the pact would do nothing to curb the nuclear ambitions of rogue nations.

A U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Bush administration had not changed its position and remained actively opposed to the pact.

The treaty, which outlaws all nuclear weapons test explosions, has been signed by 172 countries and ratified by 115. It was drafted at an international conference in Geneva and adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1996.

Foreign ministers from 42 countries, including Russia, Britain and South Korea, issued the statement on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's high-level debate, saying the treaty has "achieved near universal adherence."

The treaty needs to be ratified by 44 specific countries, including the United States and China, and has only gained 32 of those to date.

The Finnish foreign minister said the treaty organization would continue to work with the United States, China and other countries whose specific approval was needed.

"All of us classify as allies or friends of the United States," he said of the treaty participants.

The joint ministerial statement said the treaty was vital in the field of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

"The CTBT will make an important contribution towards preventing the proliferation of materials, technologies and knowledge that can be used for nuclear weapons, one of the most important challenges the world is facing today," the statement said.

"Thus, the entry into force of the treaty ... is more urgent today than ever before," the foreign ministers added, promising to work to raise political momentum in its favor.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi noted that her country was painfully aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons "as the only nation that suffered from the devastation of atomic bombs."

Kawaguchi also said her country was monitoring the reports about North Korea's preparations for testing a short-range missile.

"This firing is not really imminent yet so we keep watching the situation," she said.