SEOUL, South Korea - The South Korean intelligence reports are ominous: North Korea appears to be preparing to test-launch a ballistic missile with sufficient range to strike Alaska and possibly the U.S. West Coast.
A train transporting a large cylindrical object was recently spotted by a U.S. surveillance satellite chugging toward a new launch site west of Pyongyang, a South Korean government source said recently.
Allegedly onboard was North Korea's most advanced missile, a Taepo-Dong 2, being readied for a potential liftoff within two months.
The test launch would reportedly be aimed in the direction of Japan, but some analysts say the menacing gesture is also directed at one American in particular.
"The missile is pointing at Obama," said Baek Seung Joo, a director at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. "North Korea thinks that with such gestures they can control U.S. foreign policy."
For months, the secretive state has ratcheted up its rhetoric, threats that have mostly been aimed at the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak.
The North has vowed to abandon all peace agreements and said it would not respect a disputed sea border with South Korea. It also accused South Korea of preparing to wage war, claiming that it has adopted an "all-out confrontation posture."
"There is neither a way to improve [relations] nor hope to bring them on track," Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea announced.
While deciphering the motives of North Korea's often-contradictory foreign policy is difficult, analysts consider the moves to be part of a strategy to bring concessions from Seoul and Washington.
Stymied by a widespread hunger and a potential leadership vacuum after longtime leader Kim Jong Il's rumored stroke, North Korea might be hoping to convince South Korea to step up desperately needed financial aid while looking for more straightforward diplomatic signals from the Obama administration.
Since taking office last February, Lee has made it clear that South Korea would withhold aid unless Pyongyang becomes more forthright in its dealings.
The reception in Washington has been equally chilly. U.S. officials rejected an offer by North Korea to send an emissary to last month's inauguration of President Barack Obama.
And although Pyongyang publicly stated at New Year's that it would keep an open mind toward U.S. relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not scheduled to visit Pyongyang on her mid-February Asian swing that is to include Seoul.
"With this missile, North Korea is saying to Washington, 'Hey, you better not forget about us,' " said Moon Hong Sik, a research fellow at South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy. " 'While you're concentrating on the Middle East problems, we're here waiting.' "
Others are mystified by Pyongyang's apparent hastiness in preparing the launch.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation who specializes in East Asia politics, said one would have thought that North Korea would wait for Washington's policies to become evident.
"But there are indications that Obama's policies might not be as conciliatory as expected," he said. "The administration has indicated that it will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state and that it must follow though with a complete and verifiable denuclearization."
North Korean officials, Klingner said, "must be insulted and believe they need to respond."
A 2006 test launch of the Taepo-Dong 2 failed 30 seconds after launch, and the missile crashed into the ocean.
News reports suggest that North Korea has improved the missile. A successful test launch could have strategic repercussions, analysts said.
"If the Taepo-Dong 2 is launched successfully, that would change the threat assessment in northeast Asia overnight," Klingner said. "The reaction would be 'Oh my God, North Korea has a missile that can reach the U.S. This is a real threat, not a joke.' "
U.S. officials say they are taking the threat seriously and urged North Korea to stop raising tensions in the region.