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N Korea has more capable missile, US officials say
( 2003-09-11 08:50) (Agencies)

North Korea has used Russian technology to develop a new intermediate range ballistic missile that may be the most capable and accurate system in Pyongyang's inventory, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

There also are "indications" the North Koreans have begun limited production of the longer-range Taepo Dong 2 missile, which can reach the continental United States, and this could mean the weapon is nearly ready for export, a senior U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Experts said if the North has built a new missile based on a new design instead of the old Scud technology, this would be a significant development. But some were skeptical and one U.S. official said he believed the Bush administration remained divided on its assessments of Pyongyang's missile program.

In addition to working to improve the accuracy and range of all its three existing missile systems, the North Koreans have been "developing and perfecting a completely new and different missile system, an intermediate range missile system based on an improved different technology," one official said.

U.S. officials said the missile is based on Russia's SSN6, a submarine-launched ballistic missile deployed in 1969 with a range up to 3,400 miles. Other North Korean missiles -- the Scud, No Dong and Taepo Dong -- are based on Russia's Scud missile, which has a shorter-range and is less accurate.

One U.S. official said North Korea is believed to have acquired the SSN6 Russian missile expertise in the 1990s when post-Soviet Russia was a "free for all" bazaar and everything was for sale. "There is absolutely no indication that the Russians are now or have recently -- within the last couple of years -- been involved in this program," he said.


But other officials said this is not definitive. Russian officials deny cooperation with North Korea but they also deny cooperating with Iran, and Washington knows that Russia-Iran involvement is going on, they said.

The existence of a new missile was first reported in recent days by Asian media, including the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo. But U.S. officials revealed more details about the system, its military import and its impact on six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis held in Beijing last week.

It was widely reported that Pyongyang was expected to showcase the new intermediate range missile during festivities marking the country's 55th anniversary.

That did not happen. U.S. officials said one reason is that participants in the Beijing talks -- especially Russia and China, the North's only allies -- strongly urged Pyongyang not to do anything provocative that might jeopardize the talks.

Also, U.S. intelligence sent a delegation to Moscow last week to urge Russia to lean harder on Pyongyang.

Like most other issues involving North Korea, this was hotly debated within the administration, officials said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, leader of U.S. pro-engagement forces, backed the push to persuade Pyongyang not to display its new system while Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who have been hostile to negotiations, wanted to stand back and let the North do whatever it might choose to do.

Last month's six party talks in Beijing, designed to launch a negotiating process with Pyongyang, ended with no progress other than agreement to meet again, probably in November.

U.S. officials said there have been hints about the new intermediate range missile for several years but only in the past year has its existence and derivation been confirmed.

It shows Pyongyang can work with a much higher quality design, perfect and manufacture against that design, U.S. officials said. There is more confidence it will work because it is based on a well-established Russian design, they added.

But skeptics noted that, while it continues to ground test missile engines and other components, Pyongyang has observed a moratorium on missile test flights since 1999 and its 1998 test of a Taepo Dong 1 missile failed to achieve orbit.

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