WASHINGTON --North Korea appears to have completed fueling a long-range ballistic missile, American officials said yesterday, a move that greatly increases the probability that Pyongyang will go ahead with its first important test launch in eight years.
A senior American official said that intelligence from satellite photographs suggested that booster rockets had been loaded onto a launch pad and liquid-fuel tanks fitted to a missile at a site in North Korea's remote east coast.
While there have been steady reports in recent days about preparations for a test, fueling is regarded as a critical step as well as a probable bellwether of North Korea's intentions. Siphoning the liquid fuel out of a missile is a complex undertaking.
"Yes, looks like all systems are 'go' and fueling appears to be done," said the official, who discussed the matter only after being promised anonymity because he was addressing sensitive diplomatic and intelligence issues. A second senior official, who declined to speak on the record for similar reasons, also indicated that the United States believed the missile had been fueled.
A launch would be a significant milestone in the North's missile capability and would effectively scrap a moratorium on such tests declared by the North Koreans after their last test in 1998.
Moreover, a launch would have enormous importance for American security because it would be North Korea's first flight test of a long-range missile that might eventually have the capability to strike the United States, which has technically remained in a state of war with North Korea since the armistice that ended the Korean War 53 years ago.
A launch could also ignite a political chain reaction in Japan, the United States and China, which have been attempting to re-engage North Korea in talks about its nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration might step up financing for missile defense efforts; Japan might increase its missile defense efforts as well, while militant Japanese politicians might even push to reconsider the nation's nuclear weapons options. Both moves would likely alienate China.
The reported fueling of the missile has set off a flurry of diplomatic activity, as officials from the United States, Japan and China worked furiously to try to forestall a launch. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to her Japanese and Chinese counterparts this weekend, urging the Chinese, in particular, to try to pressure North Korea.
Officials at the State Department recently telephoned North Korean diplomats at that country's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, warning them directly against going ahead with a launch. Such direct contact is highly unusual, since American officials limit their direct talks with their North Korean counterparts. But "we needed to make sure there was no misunderstanding," a senior U.S. official said.
American intelligence believes the system is a Taepodong 2 missile and has said that a three-stage version of the system could strike all of the United States. One administration official said he believed the missile at the launch pad was a two-stage version.
While North Korea claims to have developed nuclear weapons, it has never allowed outsiders to see them. American experts believe that North Korea has enough plutonium for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons and has produced a small but growing nuclear arsenal. It is not known whether the North Koreans can build a nuclear warhead that is small enough to fit on a missile, but experts say it seems plausible that they could eventually do so.
In Japan, Foreign Minister Taro Aso warned that a miscalculation could result in the missile landing on Japanese territory.
In its last flight test of a long-range missile, in 1998, North Korea fired a Taepodong 1 missile over Japan -- a launch that the Clinton administration had warned against to no avail.
A year later, in 1999, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile testing, and has not fired one since.