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N Korea upgrades mobile missile arsenal -report

Written by: Staff

SEOUL, Mar 22: North Korea is upgrading its mobile missiles, making it easier to launch a surprise attack on neighbours, but it does not have a missile that could hit the continental United States, a report said today.

North Korea has more than 800 ballistic missiles, some of which could deliver chemical or possibly biological weapons, the California-based Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) said in its report on North Korea's capabilities.

The report said missile exports are a major source of foreign currency for the North Korean government.

''North Korea's earliest and most loyal customer for missiles and missile technology has been Iran,'' said CNS, a major US non-governmental organisation devoted to non-proliferation.

Concern over North Korea's missile programmes has resurfaced since it launched two, and possibly three, short-range missiles earlier this month.

The commander of US forces in South Korea described the missiles in the test as representing a ''quantum leap forward'' from North Korea's previous weapons because they had greater reliability and precision.

The missiles were boosted by solid fuel rather than liquid fuel, making it easier to transport and deploy them, as well as increasing their accuracy, General B B Bell told the US House Armed Services Committee.

Daniel Pinkston, director of the East Asia non-proliferation programme for CNS, said the advancement in missile technology raised serious concerns for defending South Korea, ''With solid fuel, the missiles can be launched more quickly. The surprise element increases and they are much more difficult to defend against,'' Pinkston said by telephone.

The report said North Korea does not currently have an operational missile that can strike the United States.

However, Bell and other US officials have said the North is developing longer-range missiles that could be used to attack the continental United States.

Pyongyang is working on a solid-fuel missile, Taepodong-X, with a range of up to 4,000 km that could hit Japan as well as US bases in Guam. Pyongyang has yet to demonstrate its reliability through a test flight, the report said.

''North Korea has not demonstrated the capability to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be part of a missile warhead or the capability to produce a re-entry vehicle,'' the report said.

North Korea has stayed away this year from six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programmes, angry over a US crackdown on firms Washington suspects of aiding Pyongyang in illicit activities, such as counterfeiting.

In recent days, North Korea has also lashed out over annual joint US-South Korean military drills, saying they were a prelude to an invasion and nuclear attack.

''A pre-emptive attack is not the monopoly of the United States,'' the North's KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying today.

The North Korean solid-fuel missile tested this month with a range of 100 km to 120 km could reach US bases in Seoul and quite possibly the future site for the bases, which are due to be moved south of Seoul over the next few years.

North Korea has two missiles, and possibly a third, that can strike Japan, most notably the Rodong.

''Given the missile's relative inaccuracy, the Rodong is more useful as a 'terror weapon' against population centres than as a significant military system -- unless it is armed with a nuclear warhead,'' the CNS report said.


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