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North Korea is preparing for a further test of its long-range ballistic missile the Taepodong-2, according to reports. The missile design is thought capable of reaching parts of the United States, though it has not yet achieved a successful trial.

The Guardian reports that Pyongyang has issued a statement claiming that preparations for a satellite launch are well advanced. Satellite launch rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles are very similar technology, differing only in details, and such statements are standard diplomatic procedure.

"Full-fledged preparations are under way to launch the pilot communications satellite, Kwangmyongsong No 2" according to the Northern government-run Korean Central News Agency. The launch site given was Hwadae, the facility from which the Taepodong-2 was previously tested in 2006. On that occasion the rocket failed catastrophically 40 seconds into flight, ending up in the ocean.

However North Korea has carried out other tests of more successful shorter-ranging designs, including one in which a rocket passed over Japan into the Pacific. The Pyongyang government is thought to have the materials and expertise to make a nuclear weapon, and indeed perhaps to have tested one underground or in cooperation with another nation, but isn't generally assessed as being able to mount a nuke on a missile yet.

A successful Taepodong-2 test, however, would be a further step toward such a capability - or, depending on assessment, a further bargaining chip for Pyongyang to trade away in exchange for foreign aid, as has occurred with the nation's nuclear programme in the past. An unsuccessful test, however - and the test will be intensively monitored by the US and perhaps other nations - would reduce North Korea's credibility at the same time as upsetting regional and world powers.

Any test and its result is not only critical for Pyongyang and the game of world diplomacy. It would also be a make-or-break moment for the US Missile Defence Agency and all its mad technology - laser jumbo-jet, orbital kill-swarm hover interceptors, sat-kill cruisers, robot blimp and all. The MDA is though to be under severe threat of budget cuts with the change in US administration, but a successful Taepodong-2 test could give it a stay of execution at least. ®

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