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North Korea said Tuesday it is preparing to shoot a satellite into orbit, its clearest reference yet to an impending launch that neighbors and the US suspect will be a provocative test of a long-range missile.
The statement from the North's space technology agency comes amid growing international concern that the communist nation is gearing up to fire a version of its most advanced missile - capable of reaching the US - in coming days, in violation of a UN Security Council resolution.
North Korea asserted last week that it bears the right to "space development" - words the regime has used in the past to disguise a missile test. In 1998, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Japan and then claimed to have put a satellite into orbit.
"The preparations for launching experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 by means of delivery rocket Unha-2 are now making brisk headway" at a launch site in Hwadae in the northeast, the North's agency said in a statement carried by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency. The report did not say when the launch would take place.
Intelligence officials reported brisk personnel and vehicle activity at the Hwadae launch site, the Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday. However, the North has not yet placed the missile on a launch pad, the report said. After mounting the missile, it would take five to seven days to fuel the rocket, experts say.
Hwadae is believed the launch site for North Korea's longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2, with the potential to reach Alaska. Reports suggest the missile being readied for launch could be an advanced version of the Taepodong-2 with even greater range: the US west coast.
South Korea's defense minister has said launch preparations could be completed within two weeks.
Analysts have warned for weeks that the North may fire a missile to send a strong signal to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office a year ago Wednesday with a hard-line policy on North Korea, and to new President Barack Obama.
North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under a UN Security Council resolution adopted after the North's first-ever nuclear test in 2006.
South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned Pyongyang not to fire a missile. Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the North to stop its "provocative actions," saying a missile test would "be very unhelpful."
Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea expert at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said Pyongyang's references to a space program "means they're going to fire a long-range missile, but would call it a satellite to minimize friction with the United States and international criticism."
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has stressed that missiles and satellites differ only in payload, and said a launch of either would violate the UN resolution.
Pyongyang recently has stepped up its hostile rhetoric against South Korea, saying it is "fully ready" for war. The two Koreas technically remain at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
North Korea's missile program is a major security concern for the region, along with its nuclear weapons development.
The country test-launched a Taepodong-2 missile in 2006, but it plunged into the ocean shortly after liftoff. Experts believe the North has not yet mastered the miniaturization technology required to put a nuclear warhead on a missile, but the test alarmed the world and gave new energy to stop-and-go diplomacy over North Korea's nuclear program.
A 2007 disarmament-for-aid pact North Korea signed with five other nations has been stalled since last August.