AFP - South Korea warned North Korea Thursday to scrap any plans to launch its longest-range missile, saying it would violate United Nations resolutions passed after the last test in 2006.
Officials in Seoul and Washington say there are signs the communist state is preparing to test the Taepodong-2, which has a range of 6,700 kilometres (4,100 miles) and could theoretically reach Alaska.
The reports, based on satellite photos, come amid stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks and rising inter-Korean tensions. The North has scrapped a non-aggression pact with the South and warned of possible conflict.
Pyongyang has also staked out a tough negotiating position in the disarmament talks involving the US and four regional powers.
Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman noted that the UN Security Council in 2006 adopted resolutions "expressing serious concerns over the North's missile programme and delivering a firm message."
"If the North lobs a missile, it would constitute a clear breach of the UN resolution," said the spokesman, Moon Tae-Young.
The US State Department has said any test would be "provocative" and China Thursday stressed the need for regional stability.
"We hope all the parties can recognise that maintaining stability is in the common interest" of all the people on the Korean peninsula, foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing when asked about the reported missile test plans.
The North carried out long-range missile tests in 1998 and 2006, sparking international condemnation. Experts disagree on whether it is technically capable of fitting missiles with a nuclear warhead.
The Taepodong-2 launched in 2006 failed after 40 seconds, according to US officials. A Seoul government source told Yonhap news agency the missile spotted recently is believed to be a modified version.
A pro-Pyongyang newspaper, in a website report Thursday, noted media speculation about a launch and appeared to suggest it may go ahead in March.
Choson Sinbo, published in Japan, said "massive military exercises" are held every March by US and South Korean forces.
"In light of the current situation, stronger measures are likely to be taken should moves provoking the DPRK (North Korea) and irritating its military continue," it said.
The North's relations with South Korea soured last spring after conservative President Lee Myung-Bak took office and rolled back the "sunshine" engagement policy of his liberal predecessors.
Lee linked major economic aid to denuclearisation and said he would review summit pacts signed by the North and his predecessors.
A US expert who visited Pyongyang last month described Lee's stance on the summit deals as a "disastrous, historic mistake."
Selig Harrison told a Washington think-tank Wednesday the posture served to "revive North Korean fears that South Korea, the United States and Japan want regime change and absorption."
The North's leader, Kim Jong-Il, who turns 67 this month, is widely reported to have suffered a stroke last August. Harrison said hawks have come to dominate defence policy in Pyongyang since then.
"North Korea has suddenly adopted a much harder line (in six-party negotiations) than before and the question is why," he said.
Though some analysts believe it is a bargaining posture aimed at the new US administration, Harrison stressed the fallout from Kim's illness and political changes in South Korea as contributing factors.
The academic, confirming earlier reports, said he believes Kim has a greatly reduced work schedule.
"He has turned over day-to-day management of domestic affairs to his brother-in-law Jang Song-Taek and foreign affairs and defence policy is now largely in the hands of hawks in the National Defence Commission," Harrison said.