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North Korea greets Hillary Clinton with threat

As the Secretary of State begins work in Tokyo, the North hints it will test a Taepodong 2 missile that may be capable of reaching the U.S.

February 17, 2009|Paul Richter

TOKYO — North Korea threatened Monday to test a missile capable of reaching the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton began consultations with regional leaders on the security threat from the reclusive state, the global economic crisis and other issues.

In an apparent attempt to command attention, North Korea hinted that it will test-launch a Taepodong 2 missile from its eastern coast.

"One will come to know later what will be launched," the government's state-run Korean Central News Agency said as the regime celebrated the 67th birthday of leader Kim Jong Il. It said the effort was related to "space development," rather than military ambitions.

At an appearance today with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, Clinton responded that a missile launch by Pyongyang "would be very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward."

The North Korean government has been angered by a cutoff of cash and aid over the last year by a new, more conservative government in South Korea, and declared it will back out of previous agreements with Seoul.

South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia had been negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program, but talks have stalled.

North Korean technicians have been assembling a Taepodong missile, and intelligence officials believe it is nearly ready to be fired, according to South Korean media. The missile may have the potential to reach Alaska and possibly the West Coast.

North Korea also has threatened an attack by its navy on South Korean vessels in waters west of the peninsula. The two countries have been locked in a border dispute.

North Korea is one of a long list of topics Clinton wants to discuss, along with the financial crisis, climate change, energy and the war in Afghanistan.

But North Korea's saber-rattling suggests its leaders want to push their interests to the top of Clinton's list.

In recent comments, Clinton has largely followed the Bush administration's policy of insisting that North Korea agree to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure before relations can be normalized and a peace treaty signed.

But, taking a softer line, she also has stressed the benefits to the North for doing so.

"We have a great openness to working with them," she told reporters on her plane.

Nakasone, asked by a Japanese reporter if he worried that the Obama administration would be too easy on North Korea, said he was "not concerned that policy on North Korea is going to change in any way."

Clinton tried to relieve Japan's worries that its relationship with the United States was losing its primacy as U.S.-China ties strengthen. Japanese officials were surprised and pleased that Clinton passed along an invitation for Prime Minister Taro Aso to visit the White House on Feb. 24. He will be the first foreign head of government to visit Obama.

North Korea is an important topic in Clinton's meetings today with Japanese leaders. Many in Japan believe the United States moved too quickly to make concessions to the North to keep denuclearization talks alive.

Japanese officials want to pressure North Korea to divulge what happened to Japanese citizens it abducted. They were furious over the U.S. decision last year to rescind Pyongyang's designation as a sponsor of terrorism.

While in Japan, Clinton is planning to meet opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa of the Democratic Party of Japan. The party has urged greater military cooperation between the United States and Japan.

The meeting is sensitive because Aso's approval ratings have plummeted.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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