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N. Korea 'tested missile booster'

North Korea is thought to be working on a missile capable of striking the continental U.S.
North Korea is thought to be working on a missile capable of striking the continental U.S.

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• Analysis: What are the options?
• Six-nation talks: Where they stand
• Interactive: N. Korea military might
• Timeline: Nuclear development
• Interactive: The nuclear club
• Satellite image: Nuclear facility
• Special report: Nuclear crisis

TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- North Korea tested a rocket booster for its Taepo Dong ballistic missile at a launch site on the country's east coast in January, a Japanese newspaper reported Friday, quoting Japanese and U.S. government sources.

The report adds to rising tensions in the region, where North Korea's neighbors have already been alarmed by its move to reactivate a nuclear program and its apparent firing of a short-range missile in military exercises earlier this week.

For Japanese, the Taepodong brings back disturbing memories of 1998, when the same type of missile was launched by the communist state and flew over Japan's main island.

The mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun daily quoted Japanese government sources as saying that Pyongyang had not yet started to assemble the engine and main body of the missile.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi declined to confirm the report. "Various information is going around, but we must not overreact," he told reporters.

Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said Japan did not believe that North Korea was about to launch a ballistic missile.

Defense experts believe North Korea has been developing missiles such as the Taepodong-1 and -2, with ranges of up to 6,000 km (3,750 miles).

U.S. officials said earlier this month that Pyongyang had a three-stage Taepodong-2 missile that could reach the West Coast of the United States, but that the missile had not been tested.

Undercover operations

N. Korea accuses the U.S. of having a hostile attitude towards its regime
N. Korea accuses the U.S. of having a hostile attitude towards its regime

The newspaper said U.S. satellite photos and other intelligence reports indicated North Korea had built a roof over the launch pad at the east coast site in an apparent attempt to prevent surveillance.

North Korea has conducted similar booster tests once or twice a year since the autumn of 1999, the paper said.

"Generally speaking, such a test is not conducted so frequently," Defense Minister Ishiba said.

Meanwhile Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi denied a newspaper report Friday that Pyongyang's reactor move had prompted Tokyo to consider discussing with its partners freezing a project to build two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea.

The two reactors were promised to Pyongyang under the 1994 accord signed with the United States. Extracting weapons-grade plutonium is much harder from this type of modern reactor.

The future of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the U.S.-led international consortium that runs energy program for North Korea, is already in doubt.

The United States and its KEDO partners -- Japan, South Korea and the European Union -- agreed in November to halt fuel shipments to North Korea after U.S. officials said Pyongyang had admitted pursuing its nuclear weapons program.

In telephone talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan on Friday, Kawaguchi urged Beijing, Pyongyang's closest ally, to help resolve the North Korean crisis.

"It is important to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons," a Japanese official quoted Tang as saying in his reply.

"We will play a role so a peaceful and diplomatic resolution can be achieved."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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