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North Korea missile trial may be a test of U.S.

Analysts suspect Pyongyang is preparing a launch to grab the attention of the new Obama administration.

February 08, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — The South Korean intelligence reports are ominous: North Korea appears to be preparing to test-launch a ballistic missile with sufficient range to strike Alaska and possibly the West Coast.

A train transporting a large cylindrical object was recently spotted by a U.S. surveillance satellite chugging toward a new launchpad site west of Pyongyang, the capital, a South Korean government source recently told news outlets here.

Allegedly on board was North Korea's most advanced missile, a Taepodong 2, being readied for a potential liftoff within two months.

The test launch would reportedly be aimed in the direction of Japan, but some analysts say the menacing gesture is also directed at one American in particular.

"The missile is pointing at Obama," said Baek Seung-joo, a director at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "North Korea thinks that with such gestures they can control U.S. foreign policy."

For months, the secretive state has ratcheted up its rhetoric, threats that have mostly been aimed at the hard-line administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

The North has vowed to abandon all peace agreements and said it would not respect a disputed sea border with Seoul. It also accused South Korea of preparing to wage war, saying it has adopted an "all-out confrontation posture" against Seoul.

"There is neither a way to improve [relations] nor hope to bring them on track," Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea announced.

Although deciphering the motives of North Korea's often contradictory foreign policy is difficult, analysts consider the moves to be part of a strategy to bring concessions from Seoul and Washington.

Stymied by a widespread famine and a potential new leadership vacuum after longtime leader Kim Jong Il's reported stroke, North Korea may be hoping to persuade South Korea to step up desperately needed financial aid while looking for more straightforward diplomatic signals from the Obama administration.

Since taking office last February, Lee has made it clear that his nation will withhold aid unless Pyongyang becomes more forthright in its dealings with the South.

The reception in Washington has been equally chilly. Administration officials rejected an offer by North Korea to send an emissary to President Obama's inauguration last month.

And although Pyongyang publicly stated at New Year's that it would keep an open mind toward U.S. relations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is not scheduled to visit Pyongyang on her Asian swing this month, which includes Seoul.

"With this missile, North Korea is saying to Washington, 'Hey, you better not forget about us,' " said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy. " 'While you're concentrating on the Middle East problems, we're here waiting.' "

Others are mystified by Pyongyang's apparent hastiness in preparing the launch.

"One would have thought that North Korea would have been more patient for Washington's policies to become evident," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who specializes in East Asia politics.

"But there are indications that Obama's policies might not be as conciliatory as expected. The administration has indicated that it will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state and that it must follow through with a complete and verifiable denuclearization."

North Korean officials, Klingner said, "must be insulted and believe they need to respond."

A 2006 test of a Taepodong 2 failed 30 seconds after launch, and the missile crashed into the ocean.

News reports here suggest that North Korea has since improved the missile. A successful test launch could have strategic repercussions, analysts said.

"If the Taepodong 2 is launched successfully, that would change the threat assessment in Northeast Asia overnight," Klingner said. "The reaction would be, 'Oh my God, North Korea has a missile that can reach the U.S. This is a real threat, not a joke.' "

U.S. officials say they are taking the threat seriously and urged North Korea to stop raising tensions in the region.

In a speech here last week, Army Gen. Walter L. Sharp, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, called on Pyongyang to "stop the provocations that have been going on, whether it is declaring old agreements to be no longer valid or missile technology that they continue to develop."

More than 1 million troops continue to face off along the border between the two Koreas, the world's most heavily armed. Among those are 28,500 U.S. troops.

"We watch North Korea along with the Republic of Korea very, very closely," Sharp said in his speech, reported by Yonhap news agency. "We're prepared for any contingency."

Pyongyang's scare tactics seem to be having little effect on either the stock market or public opinion in South Korea.

An editorial in the Korea Times ridiculed what it called the North's "irrational demand for unconditional economic aid," adding that Pyongyang's "notorious brinkmanship will only deepen its isolation in the international community."

Analysts here downplayed indications that the North was considering a naval skirmish over the Yellow Sea boundary between the two Koreas -- the scene of lethal battles in 1999 and 2002.

"In terms of firepower, the two navies cannot be compared," said Lee Dong-bok, an expert on North Korean negotiating tactics.

"South Korea's navy is digital, while North Korea's is still analog. In 2002, during the last naval battles, the South Korean navy was harnessed by a more deferential government in Seoul," he said.

"But President Lee has imposed no such restrictions on today's navy. And North Korea is very aware of that."

--

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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