North Korea has apparently started assembling its longest-range missile and it could be ready for launch late this month, a South Korean news report said on Friday.
Chosun Ilbo newspaper, quoting an unidentified South Korean government official, said the first and second stages of the Taepodong-2 missile had been transported by train to the launch site at Musudan-ri on the northeast coast.
"The Taepodong-2 missile has not been seen around the launch pad. It seems that the first- and second-stage rockets are now being assembled," the official was quoted as saying.
When assembled, the missile is expected to be moved to the pad, put in an upright position and fuelled for test-firing, the official said, adding that the earliest it could be launched is February 25.
The is the first anniversary of the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. The North views Lee as a bitter enemy because he has taken a firmer stance on cross-border relations than his predecessors.
It was not possible to confirm the report. South Korean authorities refuse comment on intelligence matters.
Analysts say a missile launch would be intended to put pressure on Lee to drop his harder line, and to persuade US President Barack Obama to make the North one of his policy priorities.
Chosun said increased activities by vehicles and people had been spotted at Musudan-ri but the missile is out of sight of satellites in a covered plant.
It said the components were transported in a 40-metre (132 feet) covered rail wagon from a military plant near Pyongyang, denying US satellites an opportunity to photograph them.
US and South Korean officials have previously said the hardline communist state seems to be preparing for another test of the Taepodong-2. An earlier missile blew up just 40 seconds it was first launched from Musudan-ri in July 2006.
At maximum range the missile could theoretically target Alaska.
South Korea has said that any such launch would bring the North increased isolation and added sanctions, while the United States has said it would be provocative.