updated 2/24/2009 10:00:00 PM ET 2009-02-25T03:00:00

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 U.S. suspect will be a provocative test of a long-range missile.

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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 U.S. — in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.

North Korea asserted last week it has 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 space 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.

The launch does not appear imminent and may be about a month away, a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press.

That estimated timetable is at odds with analysis from private imagery specialists who have scoured commercial satellite imagery of the site taken Feb. 17-18.

Jane's Defense Weekly said last week that based on the activity at the site on North Korea's east coast, North Korea could be preparing for a missile launch within days.

The senior U.S. intelligence official threw doubt this week on an imminent North Korean launch.

"Indicators of potential launch light up more each day, but we're still a ways off," the intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Intelligence officials reported a flurry of personnel and vehicle activity at the Hwadae launch site, the Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday. However, the North has not yet placed a rocket on the launch pad, the report said. After mounting the satellite or missile, it would take five to seven days to fuel the rocket, experts say.

Hwadae is also 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 U.S. west coast.

The country test-launched a Taepodong-2 missile in 2006, but it plunged into the ocean shortly after liftoff.

North Korea should present clear evidence that it is planning to launch a satellite, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said Tuesday, according to Yonhap. But either way, he said South Korea would consider any launch a "threat" because the technologies are similar.

Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea expert at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said Pyongyang is only calling it a satellite launch "to minimize friction with the United States and international criticism."

Banned from ballistic missile activity
North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted after the North's first-ever nuclear test in 2006. North Korea could face sanctions if it violates the resolution.

In New York, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said the United Nations was "monitoring the situation very closely."

Analysts have warned for weeks that the North may fire a missile to send a signal to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office a year ago with a hard-line policy on North Korea, and to President Barack Obama.

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.

South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned Pyongyang not to fire a missile. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the North to stop its "provocative actions," saying a missile test would "be very unhelpful."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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