Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 1 News List

North Korea set to raise stakes, test another missile

REUTERS , SEOUL AND WASHINGTON

South Korea and the US said North Korea appeared set to test a missile within days, stepping up pressure for US concessions in a nuclear standoff while Washington is preoccupied with Iraq.

Allies Seoul and Washington played down the communist state's declaration of a maritime exclusion zone -- an apparent preparation for a missile launch -- while Japan urged Pyongyang to avoid further steps to escalate the nuclear crisis.

South Korean and US officials said the North declared the exclusion zone in the Sea of Japan from March 8 to March 11, in what was seen as a strong sign it was planning its second missile test in two weeks.

"We are aware that they are preparing to fire a missile, probably between this weekend and early next week," a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said yesterday.

On Feb. 24, North Korea fired a short-range anti-ship cruise missile into the Sea of Japan, a test that startled its neighbors, carried out a day before South Korea swore in its new president, Roh Moo-hyun.

Another missile test had been widely expected by the North's neighbors as Pyongyang seeks to pressure the US to hold bilateral talks and sign a non-aggression pact to resolve the nuclear crisis.

"It was predictable the North would take a tougher line," said Kim Jung-ro, a Unification Ministry spokesman.

But any new test would follow a step-by-step escalation of provocations by North Korea that parallels the US war timetable in Iraq. Critics say US President George W. Bush is allowing Iraq to distract him from a crisis possibly more serious.

Earlier this week, Japanese media reported the North was close to restarting a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that could produce weapons-grade plutonium.

US officials said last week that North Korea, believed to be developing missiles capable of reaching parts of the US, had restarted a research reactor at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. Plutonium could be extracted from the reactor's spent fuel rods.

Four North Korean MiG fighter jets buzzed a US spy plane in international airspace last Sunday and a similar plane violated South Korean airspace last month.

Washington is possibly only a fortnight away from launching a war against Iraq.

US B-52 and B-1 bombers landed on the Pacific island of Guam this week as a deterrent to Pyongyang in the event of a US-led war against Iraq. North Korean media called the deployment part of US preparations for "pre-emptive attack".

The US Defense Department said on Friday that North Korea had declared an exclusion zone off its east coast, a standard measure prior to weapons testing.

"We are certainly aware that they have filed a notice of exclusion. That is typically a precursor to a missile test. But we're not overly concerned," said US Navy Lieutenant-Commander Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

The US also played down last month's missile test, saying the North had given prior notification.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima yesterday urged Pyongyang to avoid steps to raise tensions further.

"We urge North Korean restraint. If such action is carried out, it will only raise tensions and is highly undesirable," he said.

Roh's office declined to comment on the expected test.

Such short-range missile tests do not violate international treaties and laws.

The North has, however tested long-range missiles before, firing a multi-stage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998.

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