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N. Korea Says It Has Right to Launch Missile

Diplomats insist that Pyongyang isn't bound by a 1999 moratorium. Amid the tension, the South's ex-president cancels his trip north.

June 21, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Defying international pressure, North Korea on Tuesday defended what it said was its sovereign right to develop and test long-range missiles.

In Pyongyang's first public comment on the mounting crisis, North Korean diplomats insisted that the country was not bound by a 1999 missile-testing moratorium or other international agreements against testing.

"As a sovereign state, North Korea has the right to not only develop, deploy and test-fire but also export a missile. It is not right that others tell us what to do about our sovereign rights," Han Song Ryol, North Korea's deputy chief of mission to the United Nations, was quoted today as telling South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

A North Korean diplomat visiting Tokyo, Lee Byung Du, made similar comments to Japanese reporters, saying, "This issue concerns our autonomy."

North Koreans did not elaborate on what they were doing at a missile base on their east coast, where satellites have observed the apparent assembling and fueling of a multistage missile.

But a South Korean intelligence analyst said the fact that the North Koreans were speaking openly about their right to launch a missile could be interpreted as a sign that "they are trying to find a way to have a diplomatic overture."

"I think the story is on the way to change, if you look at the words of North Korea," he said today on condition of anonymity.

U.S. defense officials have refused to say whether they would attempt to shoot down any missile launched by North Korea, and military officials in the Pacific declined to discuss the alert status of forces and ships operating as part of the limited U.S. missile defense system.

In another sign of growing concern over a missile test, former South Korean President and Nobel Laureate Kim Dae-jung today canceled a planned trip to Pyongyang next week in which he was to meet North Korea's Kim Jong Il. The trip was planned to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the landmark 2000 summit at which the two Kims met for the first time.

"It is practically impossible for him to visit in late June because of the unexpected circumstances," Jeong Se-hyun, an aide to Kim Dae-jung, told reporters.

The decision came after a meeting Tuesday in Seoul between Kim Dae-jung and the U.S. ambassador, Alexander Vershbow, during which the envoy conveyed Washington's concern over the apparent missile-launch plans.

Beneath the surface, there are simmering tensions between Washington and Seoul over the seriousness of the threat posed by the North.

South Korean officials on Tuesday challenged the U.S. assertion that North Korea had completed the fueling process, making a launch both inevitable and imminent.

The South Korean National Intelligence Service told the National Assembly that only 40 fuel canisters were observed around the launch site at the Musudan-ri base, not enough to fuel what is said to be a 115-foot, 65-ton multistage Taepodong 2 missile.

In addition, Seoul was questioning whether the missile was of military use.

One government official who had attended a briefing said that the nature of the liquid fuel at the site and the way the missile was being assembled above ground suggested a civilian purpose, such as for launching a satellite.

"We believe it is premature to judge whether this is a missile or a satellite. We are not jumping to conclusions," said the official, who asked not to be named.

In 1998, North Korea launched a multistage Taepodong 1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. Pyongyang said the missile carried a satellite that was broadcasting North Korean revolutionary hymns and was contributing to "scientific research for peaceful use of outer space."

The United States and Japan disputed the assertion.

There is also a dispute over whether North Korea is still bound by a missile-testing moratorium reached in 1999 and renewed in 2002 during a summit in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

U.S. officials contend that North Korea in effect renewed the moratorium again in September during six-party talks on denuclearization at which all sides pledged not to inflame tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Speaking to the Yonhap news agency, however, North Korea's U.N. diplomat Han said that pledge applied only at times when North Korea was actively engaged in talks with the U.S.

"Some say our missile test launch is a violation of the moratorium, but this is not true," Han was quoted as saying.

Independent defense experts said the U.S. military was likely to track any launch from North Korea through sophisticated land, sea and space-based radars being developed as part of the system.

The Navy has 10 destroyers and two cruisers equipped with advanced Aegis radar systems that are available for use in missile defense. Some of those ships have been placed on alert, according to one person close to the program, speaking on condition of anonymity because of military sensitivity.

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