SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea has been moving missile equipment to a launch pad in a further indication the country is taking steps toward test firing a long-range missile, a news report said Wednesday.
The report came the same day that North Korea announced it had replaced its two top military officials and amid heightened tension between the Koreas. Pyongyang said late last month it would scrap all peace accords with Seoul and has periodically warned of war on the divided peninsula.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit South Korea next week as part of an Asian trip and North Korea's recent saber-rattling is seen at least partially as an attempt to grab the attention of President Barack Obama's new administration.
But on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates played down reports of possible North Korean missile launch preparation, noting the country's last such test was a failure.
However, in response to a question from a reporter, he said the U.S. could shoot down a North Korean missile "should we deem it necessary."
Yonhap news agency said a vehicle carrying the equipment was seen moving to the Musudan-ni site, located on the eastern coast, from a munitions factory near Pyongyang, after the suspected missile was reportedly transferred there.
South Korean and Japanese media reported last week that intelligence had spotted a train carrying a long, cylinder-shaped object - believed to be a long-range missile capable of reaching the western U.S. - to the launch site.
Yonhap quoted a South Korean government official it did not name as saying that the equipment may be weather-forecasting radar or precision radar aimed at detecting a missile impact area.
"It can be analyzed that the North is proceeding with a missile launch preparation in stages," the official said.
South Korea's main spy agency - the National Intelligence Service - said it could not comment on the report as it is related to intelligence matters. The Defense Ministry said it was checking the report.
Kim Tae-woo, a missile expert at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said that in general it would take about one to two months of preparation for the North to fire a missile. He said the radar cited by Yonhap is key equipment for any missile test.
Amid increasing belligerence, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il replaced his defense minister and military chief of staff, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
Kim named top military official Kim Yong Chun as minister of the People's Armed Forces, and Ri Yong Ho as the new chief of the military's general staff. KCNA gave no reason for the replacements nor said what happened to their predecessors.
Meanwhile, South Korean media have reported that Chinese fishing vessels have recently vanished from waters along the disputed sea border off the Korean peninsula's west coast.
North Korea has usually issued a no-sail order before past firings of short-range missiles in the area. Seoul's mass-circulation Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said Wednesday that Chinese fishing boats disappeared before the navies of the two Koreas fought bloody skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.
An officer with South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the number of Chinese fishing vessels has decreased since late January and few were detected this month. The officer declined to give his name saying he was not authorized to speak to media.
He said, however, that South Korea has not detected any unusual signs of movement by the North's military along the western sea border.
Associated Press Writers Kwang-tae Kim and Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.
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