WORLD / Asia-Pacific

N.Korea seeks talks with US over missile
Updated: 2006-06-21 15:02

North Korea said Wednesday it wants direct talks with the United States over its apparent plans to test-fire a long-range missile, a day after the country issued a statement in which it declared its right to carry out the launch.

A commercial satellite photo of North Korea's Nodong missile launch site taken on by a Digital Globe satellite and annotated and released by analysts at on May 24, 2006. The United States and Japan warned North Korea on Monday against a missile launch that experts say could reach as far as Alaska and threatened harsh action if the test flight goes ahead. (Digital Globe via
A commercial satellite photo of North Korea's Nodong missile launch site taken on by a Digital Globe satellite and annotated and released by analysts at on May 24, 2006. The United States and Japan warned North Korea on Monday against a missile launch that experts say could reach as far as Alaska and threatened harsh action if the test flight goes ahead. [Reuters]

Tensions in the region have soared following intelligence reports that the North was fueling a ballistic missile believed capable of reaching US territory. The United States and Japan have said they could consider sanctions against the country and push the UN Security Council for retaliatory action should the launch go ahead.

North Korea said in comments published Wednesday that its self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles from 1999 no longer applies because it's not in direct dialogue with Washington, suggesting it would hold off on any launch if the US agreed to new talks.

"Some say our missile test launch is a violation of the moratorium, but this is not the case," Han Song Ryol, deputy chief of North Korea's mission to the United Nations, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency in an interview from New York.

"North Korea as a sovereign state has the right to develop, deploy, test fire and export a missile," he said. "We are aware of the US concerns about our missile test-launch. So our position is that we should resolve the issue through negotiations."

The North's official Korean Central News Agency also ran a report Wednesday on US officials urging direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang in regard to the standoff over the North's nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang has consistently pressed for direct dialogue with the United States, while Washington insists it will only speak to the North at six-nation nuclear talks. The North has refused to return to those nuclear talks since November because of a US crackdown on the country's alleged illicit financial activity.

The new statement from the North came after France and the UN secretary-general raised the alarm over what are believed to be the North's preparations for a test of the Taepodong-2, with a range of up to 9,300 miles. Japan and South Korea also pledged to cooperate to stop Pyongyang's apparent plans for a launch.

On Tuesday, North Korea asserted its right to test-fire missiles in a statement to Japanese reporters in Pyongyang.

"This issue concerns our autonomy. Nobody has a right to slander that right," the Kyodo News agency quoted North Korean Foreign Ministry official Ri Pyong Dok as saying.

Kyodo also quoted Ri as saying the North is not bound by the joint declaration at international nuclear disarmament talks last year or a missile moratorium agreed to by Tokyo and Pyongyang in 2002. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reaffirmed the moratorium, in place in practice since 1999, in 2004.

Ri told reporters his remarks represented Pyongyang's official line on the matter, but refused to comment on whether the North would push ahead with the missile test, saying it was inappropriate for a diplomat to give further information, Kyodo said.

A pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, said Wednesday the launch of could take place "anytime, which can be in a month or in a year." Over the weekend, Kyodo reported that North Korea plans to disguise the missile test as an attempt to put a satellite into orbit, as it did with the 1998 missile launch.

The international campaign to block the launch widened Tuesday, with the French government and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for a halt to test preparations.

"I hope that the leaders of North Korea will listen to and hear what the world is saying. We are all worried," said Annan, who was in Paris. He called for all parties in the standoff to avoid an escalation of tensions.

In this satellite image released by GeoEye, the Taepodong missile launch complex in North Korea, called Musudan-ri, is shown in 2001. North Korea said Sunday, June 18, 2006, it is seeking to increase its military deterrent to cope with US moves in a restatement of its typical anti-Washington propaganda, amid increasing signs that the country is preparing for a missile test. [AP]

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking after talks with Annan, said any North Korean missile test must draw a "firm and just" international response.

China also urged calm.

"We hope that under the current circumstances, relevant parties can do more in the interest of regional stability and peace," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

Information on the test preparation remained scant and contradictory Tuesday. Especially unclear is whether Pyongyang has completed injecting fuel into the missile, a move some experts consider irreversible and a clear sign the country intends to launch.

Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported that US satellite images suggest the North was still fueling its missile. And a US official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that US intelligence indicated North Korea had finished fueling.

However, Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Jinen Nagase said Japan could not confirm that fueling was complete. And South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, believes North Korea hasn't finished because the 40 tanks seen around a launch site weren't enough to fuel a 65 ton missile, Yonhap news agency reported.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said it appeared some rockets had been assembled, but the North's intentions were unclear. There were no reports of a launch by Tuesday evening, and the North is considered unlikely to launch at nighttime.

Ban agreed in a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, to cooperate to prevent a North Korean launch, Japan's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

Amid the rising tensions, the United States staged war games near Guam in the western Pacific with 22,000 troops and three aircraft carriers. Commanders said the maneuvers were not aimed at any particular country.

The test fears have been especially high in Japan, a firm US ally with no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. The two countries are at odds over the North's abduction of Japanese citizens, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development and wartime grievances.

Washington also kept up the pressure on Pyongyang. The US ambassador to South Korea conveyed the Bush administration's concerns to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who was to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il next week, but postponed his trip to the North on Wednesday. The "trip has become difficult," said his aide, Jeong Se-hyun.


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