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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea has accelerated preparations for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile and the launch could come as early as this weekend, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
They said it seemed increasingly likely Pyongyang would go through with the test -- rather than just making preparations to get U.S. and international attention -- but it could still decide to cancel a launch.
"The North Koreans have been working on it for a while without much of a let up ... We think they are speeding up," one U.S. official told Reuters. Other officials confirmed that assessment. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The officials said there were many people working at the test site and they hinted that efforts to assemble missile components on the launch pad may have begun.
It would be Pyongyang's first test of a long-range missile since it stunned the world in August 1998 by firing a Taepodong 1 over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean.
Japanese media previously reported signs of North Korean preparations to test a multiple-stage Taepodong 2 missile -- which could reach U.S. territory -- since early May. The North claims to have nuclear weapons.
White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley on Wednesday warned it would be a "bad idea" if Pyongyang tested and a South Korean official on Thursday said Seoul sent a message in May expressing "grave concern" about a possible test.
U.S. officials said satellites recently spotted a missile on a flatbed truck at the Musudan-ri launch facility in North Hamgyong province in northeast North Korea.
"Removing it from its storage site and erecting it for launch, and then filling it with extremely volatile liquid oxygen and other liquid fuels, and then finally commencing the countdown to the actual launch point, that would take at least the better part of a day and might well take much longer," said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
Two U.S. officials said they do not believe fueling has begun. But the test could occur "within a couple of days if they kicked into gear," one official said.
Officials said there may be plans for multiple tests which would be unusual but not unprecedented for the North.
It is unlikely Washington would try to shoot down a North Korean missile because of doubts about the capability of its missile defense system, which is aimed in large measure at defending against an attack by Pyongyang, officials said.
But a test would almost certainly put six-country talks on the North's nuclear program in a deeper freeze, they said.
The preparations come as the six-country talks are stalemated and international attention has shifted to concerns Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Tehran says it only seeks to produce peaceful energy.
Some U.S. analysts believe North Korea feels ignored and would conduct a missile test to assert its importance or demonstrate its pique over President George W. Bush's willingness to show flexibility to Iran even as he has held a tough line on Pyongyang.
Washington joined five other major powers last week in offering Tehran a proposal to end the Iran nuclear crisis that includes benefits denied Pyongyang, such as light-water nuclear power reactors.
North Korea does not have an operational missile that can strike the United States and some officials believe Pyongyang will test to find out if the missile works.
U.S. intelligence estimates of the untested Taepodong 2's range have increased in recent years with the two-stage missile theoretically able to strike portions of U.S. territory and the three-stage version able to hit "most of the continental United States," according to a recent report by Monterey Institute's Center for Non-proliferation Studies.
But the report stressed the missile's "probable inaccuracy" and the fact that the North has not demonstrated an ability to make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit a missile warhead.
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