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DPRK missile site movements said continuing
Updated: 2004-09-26 09:00

Suspicious ground movements in North Korea may reflect maintenance of missile sites rather than preparations for a missile test, according to South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon.

U.S. and Japanese officials recently detected signs North Korea was preparing to launch a ballistic missile capable of reaching almost anywhere in Japan.

In an interview with Reuters late on Friday, Ban said he understood such movements were continuing.

But he added, "We're not quite sure what their intentions are, whether they are to fire missiles or simply maintaining their missile sites."

The preparations were noticed after North Korea refused to take part in a fourth round of six-party talks this month on ending its nuclear ambitions and said it would never forsake its nuclear deterrent.

U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have played down the possibility of a missile test. But Ban said a missile firing will set back cooperation between South Korea and North Korea, as well as the six-party process.

A missile fired by Pyongyang over Japan in 1998 shocked the world.

Speaking on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly, Ban expressed frustration with "overblown" media reports about previously secret South Korean nuclear experiments and rejected comparisons to Iran and North Korea.

He said he could not predict when six-party North Korea talks might resume and attempted to explain why South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said he sees no need to rush into another round of the China-hosted dialogue.

The six-party talks, involving the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia, as well as China, were to resume this month.

But Pyongyang said it saw no point in more negotiations because of Washington's "hostile policy."

It also cited revelations that South Korea -- which relies heavily on nuclear energy but has promised to forsake nuclear weapons -- conducted secret, limited, nuclear-related experiments in 1982 and 2000.

Experts believe Pyongyang is waiting for results of the Nov. 2 U.S. presidential election before deciding next steps.

A Russian official has said the next six-party round may not happen until the end of the year. Ban said he could not make such a prediction and hedged when asked if he were confident another round would occur.

After stressing the talks should happen "as soon as possible," Ban was asked to reconcile that sentiment with Roh's stamen on Wednesday that there is no need to rush into another six-party meeting.

U.S. officials say Pyongyang has one or two nuclear weapons already plus material for another six bombs.

"There are sometimes ups and downs (in this kind of bilateral negotiation) ... so what (Roh) said means that we need to be patient," Ban said.

Seoul raised eyebrows when it recently disclosed that its scientists enriched a small amount of uranium in 2000 and separated plutonium in 1982 -- activities forbidden to South Korea as a signer of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons states.

Ban spent the past few days assuring world leaders the work was "isolated laboratory-scale research activities that a few scientists conducted on their own" without government knowledge.

"We have never had such consistent and organized programs as Iran or North Korea have been developing," he said.

The United States and some other countries accuse Iran of aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies.

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