WASHINGTON — The Bush administration moved to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on North Korea on Monday, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warning that a launch of a ballistic missile would be a "provocative act" that would signal Pyongyang's rejection of international efforts to reach a compromise on its nuclear weapons program.
The prospect of a long-range missile in the hands of one of the world's most stridently anti-American regimes spread alarm in Washington. A missile test at this time would also be an embarrassing setback to the Bush administration's efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran and elsewhere.
President Bush participated in overseas phone calls made by administration officials, and U.S. military officials pointed to their missile defense capabilities without indicating whether there were plans to use them. In Tokyo, officials said Japan would respond "severely," and South Korean officials early today also delivered a stern warning.
The missile is thought to have a range that could reach U.S. territories in the Pacific such as Guam and possibly parts of Alaska or Hawaii. Analysts believe it is considerably more sophisticated than the Taepodong 1 that North Korea shot into the Pacific Ocean in 1998 before signing a missile-testing moratorium.
As of Monday, satellite intelligence from the launch site in Musudan-ri on North Korea's east coast suggested that the fueling was on the verge of completion. Once fueling is finished, U.S. sources said, any launch probably would take place within 48 hours, since such missiles can be damaged if left fueled for extended periods. Siphoning off liquid fuel is considered difficult and dangerous.
A South Korean official told reporters in Seoul that all that remained was "the click of a button."
But another South Korean official questioned whether fueling was completed and said the launch had not passed the point of no return. The official hinted at efforts to get North Korea to change its mind.
"The unofficial communication channel is always open," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
With talks seemingly at a standstill and military options considered imprudent, U.S. officials were left to wonder about North Korea's next step.
"We're still waiting. We don't know what their intentions are," said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the uncertainty involved. "We don't know for sure that they're going to push the button. But the trend lines have all been in one direction."
Bush took part in calls to more than a dozen heads of state and government to discuss the consequences of a launch, said White House spokesman Tony Snow. He refused to name leaders contacted by Bush. Snow confirmed that U.S. diplomats have been in contact with North Korean counterparts in New York, where the two countries have on occasion communicated through their United Nations delegations.
After days of silence, South Korea joined Japan and the United States early today and issued a pointed warning.
"The government explained to North Korea the serious repercussions a missile launch would bring and strongly demanded that test-fire plans be scrapped," Woo Sang-ho, a spokesman for South Korea's ruling Uri Party, said this morning in Seoul.
The U.S. issued similar warnings in 1998 when it learned that North Korea had begun fueling a Taepodong 1 missile, a multistage rocket that can fly about 1,250 miles, but Pyongyang ignored the admonishments and launched the missile over Japan. The projectile, which if developed sufficiently could be a delivery system for a nuclear weapon, dropped harmlessly into the Pacific after its third stage blew up.
In 1993, North Korea test-fired a modified Scud missile with a range of about 620 miles.
The situation today is more dangerous than in 1998 because North Korea has considerably advanced its nuclear program. The nation pulled out of a nuclear-freeze agreement in 2002 and restarted its reactor and reprocessing plant in Yongbyon.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- toward whom Bush has expressed great personal animosity, although the two have never met -- has made a point of snubbing the administration's nonproliferation efforts.
Since September, Pyongyang has boycotted six-nation meetings over negotiating a dismantlement of its nuclear program. Measures to punish the North Koreans by shutting down an overseas bank the regime was accused of using to launder proceeds of drug trafficking and counterfeiting have so far failed to bring Pyongyang into compliance.
The CIA believes that North Korea has enough nuclear material for 10 weapons, although it is not clear whether its scientists have the ability to make a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile.