Japan warns North Korea on missile test

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Japan threatened to lodge a "fierce" protest with the UN Security Council if North Korea test-fires a long-range missile that could theoretically reach the United States, as the hardline Communist state warned that it would step up its "military deterrent".

North Korean military preparations rattled Asia over the weekend amid reports that Pyongyang was preparing to launch a missile with a range of up to 4,000 miles.

Memories of the test- firing of a rocket in 1998 that crossed parts of Japan are still fresh in the region. North Korea's claims that it has nuclear weapons has escalated tensions.

Satellite pictures reportedly showed fuel tanks being filled at a launch site in North Korea. "The North Koreans decided in 1999 that they would place a moratorium on this kind of testing, and we expect them to maintain [it]," Tony Snow, a White House spokesman, told Fox News television yesterday.

Japan's largest daily, Yomiuri, reported yesterday that the US and Japan had confirmed that assembly of what is believed to be an untested Taepodong-2 missile has been completed at the launch site.

If a missile test does go ahead, "we will naturally file a stern protest and it will be fierce," the Japanese Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, warned on Japanese television.

However, North Korean officials told South Korean MPs that concerns over a possible missile test were "unfounded", according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

"The (North) Korean army and people will do their best to increase the military deterrent with sharp vigilance to cope with the moves of the US, which is hell-bent on provocations for war of aggression on the DPRK ... and its followers Japan and other bellicose forces," said Choe Thae Bok, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea.