As speculation continues over the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, there are new signs the North is advancing its decades-old ballistic missile program. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Private sector intelligence analysts have made public for the first time an apparent missile base in North Korea. A report to be published next week by Jane's Defense Weekly is expected to unveil satellite images of the North Korean facility near Podong-ni. Analysts say it appears designed to accommodate test launches of long-range missiles.
North Korea has poured a large amount of its economic output into missile development for decades. It has about 800 missiles capable of hitting South Korea and Japan, and test-fired a missile directly over Japanese territory in 1998. North Korea test-fired a long-range missile in 2006, a few months before it conducted its first test explosion of a nuclear weapon.
David Asher is a former coordinator of North Korea policy at the U.S. State Department. During a visit to Seoul this week, he said there are signs North Korea may be contemplating more missile tests.
"Last week there was a statement by the KCNA, the [North] Korean news agency ... it stated that North Korea has the right to test a satellite. Well, this is exactly what they did before they tested the Taepodong a few years ago. And I would be very concerned, personally, just based on that, that they are going to do this again," said Asher.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee was quoted in local media as saying he is aware of the missile base, and believes it is 80 percent complete. Defense Minister Lee was quoted as saying there have been no unusual moves by the North's military, amid the possibly declining health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. South Korea is not taking any immediate steps to raise its level of defense alert.
South Korea's intelligence agency revealed this week its belief the North's leader is recovering from a cerebral hemorrhage, or stroke, he suffered last month. North Korean officials reject the reports as a worthless conspiracy. Nonetheless, Kim Jong Il has not been seen in public since August 14.
Kim Jong Il has absolute personal control of North Korea's secretive government. He has never publicly named a successor. Leaders view any compromise of his health as potentially destabilizing to the North Korean system - and even to peace on the Korean peninsula.
Brian Myers specializes in North Korea's propaganda and official communications at South Korea's Dongseo University. He says North Korea's domestic media is absolutely silent about international reports on their leader's health.
"What we can expect are editorials that condemn the rest of the world for making baseless rumors, but I do not think the North Korean press will explain to the people what those rumors are," he said.
He says health problems may put a dent in the North's efforts to portray Kim Jong Il as an all-powerful leader.
"It does compromise his image because North Korean propaganda has always praised Kim Jong Il for his sturdy constitution, and compared it favorably to the poor health of other leaders," he said.
He says average North Koreans are probably aware of their leader's health situation, via broadcast and cell phone technology, as well as robust business contact with China.