WASHINGTON – South Korea's ambassador said Tuesday there are some indications that North Korea is preparing for a test launch of a long-range ballistic missile.
"We see the signs that they are moving in that direction," Ambassador Lee Tae-sik said.
He said the indications were based on intelligence but did not elaborate. He added that the prospect of a North Korean test was "very worrisome."
Lee held out the possibility that the apparent test preparations could be a ploy designed to get U.S. attention. It was best, he said, not to "make a conclusion" that the launch would happen.
"We cannot rule out the possibility that at the last moment, it (North Korea) will change its mind," Lee said.
He spoke following a presentation at the Nixon Center, a private research group.
A missile test would add a new dimension to the North Korean issue. In recent years, the United States and four Asian partners have been trying to persuade the North to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The six-party discussions have made little headway. None have been held since last November.
On the missile question, a U.S. government official agreed in a telephone interview that there is reason to believe that the North is preparing for a missile test. He offered no details.
The official asked not to be named because his information was based on intelligence information.
He did not dispute news accounts that said the Taepodong-2 missile which Pyongyang may launch has the potential to strike the United States.
North Korea has been under a self-imposed ban on testing of long-range missiles since 1999. It agreed to take that step during a period of relative warmth in the country's relations with the United States.
In 1998, North Korea touched off a crisis in Northeast Asia by launching an intermediate range missile that flew over Japan.
The North's reported test preparations are causing deep concern in South Korea. Last week, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon called on the communist country not to do anything to damage relations.
"South Korea and the United States have forged a consensus that North Korea should not take steps — such as test-firing a missile — that would worsen the situation," Ban told a news briefing.