updated 9/23/2004 3:29:57 AM ET 2004-09-23T07:29:57

Japan has received intelligence indicating that North Korea may be preparing to test launch a short-range missile, an official said Thursday.

Information from spy satellites and radio waves has shown North Korea beefing up troops and equipment around missile launch bases, said Shigemi Terui, a spokesman at the prime minister's office.

The government has set up an emergency task-force team to help gather more information, Terui said.

Public broadcaster NHK quoted officials on the task force saying an immediate launch was not expected. Terui could not confirm that comment.

The secretive communist nation has test-fired short-range missiles into the ocean on several occasions last year during an international standoff over its nuclear weapons program.

In Seoul, Rhee Bong-jo, the deputy unification minister, said earlier Thursday that South Korea recently detected activity "connected to North Korean missiles."

South Korea believes "there is a high possibility that these were part of the annual, routine activities of North Korean missile units," Rhee said. "But since we cannot rule out a possibility of a missile launch, we are continuously monitoring and trying to confirm the situation."

The daily Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported Thursday that North Korea was preparing to launch Nodong missiles, which have a range of about 810 miles and would be capable of striking parts of Japan's main islands.

The Yomiuri said Japan dispatched an Aegis-equipped destroyer and other surveillance equipment to the Sea of Japan on Tuesday to monitor the situation.

Terui was unable to comment on the Defense Agency's activities, and the agency refused to comment to The Associated Press.

But a Maritime Self-Defense Forces official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP that the Aegis destroyer Myoko had left port for training. The official spoke from Maizuru, the home port of the vessel identified in the Yomiuri report.

Officials are also preparing for the possibility of a longer-range launch of a Taepodong ballistic missile, the Yomiuri said.

North Korea launched a Taepodong missile over Japan's main island and into the Pacific Ocean in 1998, demonstrating that virtually any target in Japan was within its range.

North Korea fired land-to-ship missiles off its eastern coast on at least three occasions last year. The United States and South Korea criticized them as attempts to force Washington into negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program on Pyongyang's terms.

The report comes amid troubling rhetoric recently from Pyongyang that has slowed efforts to hold six-nation talks on ending its nuclear weapons development. The next round of talks with the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia were planned for late September.

It also comes as the United States prepares to launch a new mission patrolling the Sea of Japan with Aegis-equipped destroyers to monitor any ballistic missile launches _ an effort widely seen as being aimed at keeping watch over North Korea.

Vice Adm. Jonathan Greenert, commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, told the AP Wednesday that the mission could start as early as next week.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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