By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. nonprofit group has posted photos of a North Korean missile test site on its Web site, giving the public access to previously top-secret spy satellite imagery and sparking debate over how serious the missile threat is.
In the past such images have been seen only by government officials with security clearances, but now anyone can buy them from a private firm with a satellite that can take detailed pictures.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a public policy group focused on national security issues, bought photos of North Korea's Taepodong missile test site taken in November -- retail price $2,000 -- and posted them on its Web site, http://www.fas.org, this week for the world to see.
FAS was founded in 1945 by members of the Manhattan Project who produced the first atomic bomb. It is dedicated to ending the arms race, achieving nuclear disarmament and avoiding the use of nuclear weapons.
The Korean pictures were the first of about a dozen nuclear and missile site photos that FAS plans to buy from Colorado- based Space Imaging that will include images from Pakistan and India, John Pike, director of FAS's space policy project, said.
He said the North Korea photos appeared to show a fairly primitive facility.
``This is their Kennedy Space Center,'' Pike said. ``All they've got connecting the building where they assemble the missiles and the launch pad is a dirt road through the middle of a rice paddy,'' he said.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials warned against downplaying the threat from North Korea regardless of how elementary the missile facilities appeared.
``I'm not sure that the fact that the launch facility is primitive makes the missiles any less threatening,'' said Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.
A U.S. intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity said: ``Just because it doesn't have the infrastructure of one of our sites, or a Russian site or a Chinese site, doesn't mean it isn't cause for concern. It shows how much can be done with a relatively limited infrastructure.''
Both officials cited the August 1998 test in which North Korea launched a missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific. U.S. defense analysts have said North Korea was developing a Taepodong II missile, which could possibly put Alaska or Hawaii within striking distance.
Last summer, North Korea appeared to be making preparations for a second launch but agreed in September to refrain while engaged in talks with the United States over attempts to improve relations.
``It's not surprising that their facilities are primitive by our standards,'' Bacon said. ``It's also not surprising that, given the dedication and money they've devoted to upgrading their military, that they have been able to produce long-range missiles and to fire them from such primitive spots.''
FAS said it hopes to stir public debate by publishing spy satellite photos.
``Previously you had to be a superpower to pull this stunt,'' Pike said. ``And now the public can see for itself what the fuss is all about.''
Pike said the photos suggested the United States was overreacting to the threat from North Korea.
``This facility was not designed to support a large test program. That suggests to me the North Koreans are developing an unreliable missile to deter us rather than a reliable missile to attack us,'' he said. ``Just to keep us a little bit scared of them.''
People do not have to be experts to analyze the photos, Pike said. ``Basically anybody who has looked out of an airplane window can tell the difference between a concrete road and a dirt road ... can identify the difference between a big building and a little building,'' he said.