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N. Korea Issues Threat to Japan

September 24, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In an unusually explicit threat to its neighbor, North Korea on Thursday warned that Japan would be turned into a "nuclear sea of fire" if the United States were to launch an attack against the North.

The threat came as Japanese and South Korean government officials expressed fears that North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile. Intelligence satellites have detected unusual movements of vehicles and personnel massing around missile bases on the east coast, South Korean and Japanese officials reported.

South Korea said it believed the movements were connected to annual military games taking place near the missile bases.

"Recently activities related to missiles have been detected, but it's highly likely that it could be a routine and annual exercise," said Rhee Bong Jo, a South Korean deputy unification minister whose office handles North Korean affairs.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters that a missile test "would be a very troubling matter.... I think that the neighbors of North Korea would register strong concerns."

Japan reportedly dispatched surveillance aircraft and a destroyer ship equipped with an Aegis weapons system, which allows it to track and destroy multiple aircraft targets.

Although such bellicose language from Pyongyang is usually dismissed as empty rhetoric, the latest threat seems certain to inflame tensions in the region.

"If the United States ignites a nuclear war in this part of the world, then U.S. bases in Japan would serve as a detonating fuse that would plunge Japan into a nuclear sea of fire," North Korea's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in a commentary carried by the KCNA news agency. "If it wants to maintain peace and live safely, Japan should not become an appendage of the war strategy of American imperialism."

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has made two trips to Pyongyang since 2002 in an effort to rebuild relations, downplayed the tensions with North Korea.

After returning from New York at the end of an 11-day trip abroad, Koizumi told reporters that there was a low probability that the North Koreans would launch a missile.

"At this moment, it is of no advantage to North Korea to launch a missile, as it could make the country completely isolated from the international community," he said.

North Korea's threat came as the nation prepared to meet with Japan this weekend in Beijing to discuss the fate of 10 Japanese allegedly kidnapped by North Korean agents during the Cold War. Pyongyang claims that eight of the Japanese have died and that two never entered the country. But the abductees issue has hardened Japanese opinion toward the North, and Koizumi continues to insist on a fuller accounting as a precondition to improving ties.

The planned talks are being described as "working-level," with Japanese officials damping hopes of a breakthrough. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to balk at joining another round of six-nation talks on its nuclear program.

"Pyongyang apparently wants to wait for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Wednesday. "But I think Pyongyang understands that delaying the talks with Japan will only result in a backlash in Japanese public opinion."

The Japanese were stunned in 1998 when North Korea test-fired a Taepodong missile over their country. But North Korea since then has largely observed a moratorium on missile testing, with the exception of short-range land-to-ship missiles.

The concerns over missile testing came on the heels of a report this month that North Korea might be testing a nuclear device. What was originally reported to be a mushroom cloud observed by satellite over North Korea turned out to be a patch of bad weather, South Korean officials said.

Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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