Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 5 News List

North Korea poker-faced on missile launch


North Korea gave no hint of whether it will fire a long-range missile as widely feared, a New Zealand diplomat said yesterday after a trip to Pyongyang, as the US expressed confidence it can intercept an incoming missile from the North.

New Zealand's ambassador to both Koreas, Jane Coombs, said she conveyed her country's "grave concern" to North Korean officials during a four-day trip, but was given no clue whether the Pyongyang regime would go ahead with a launch.

"They did not confirm that such a test was imminent ... nor did they deny that such a test was not imminent," Coombs said in Beijing.

In Pyongyang, she presented her credentials for her new post. North Korean officials she met include the country's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, and Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il.

North Korea has made recent moves that would enable it to launch a long-range missile, US and Asian officials have said. Intelligence reports say fuel tanks have been seen around a missile at the North's launch site on its northeastern coast, but officials say it's difficult to determine if the rocket is actually being fueled by looking at satellite photos.

In Washington, the Pentagon's missile defense chief said he has little doubt that US interceptor rockets would hit and destroy a North Korean missile in flight if President George W. Bush gave the order to attack it on a path to US territory.

"[From] what I have seen and what I know about the system and its capabilities, I am very confident," said Air Force Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III at a news conference. He refused to discuss more specifically the level of his confidence.

The North's moves has drawn widespread international concern. Its main allies China and Russia have also issued warnings.

US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said he was "very encouraged" at China and Russia's strong concern, which showed the international community is united against a launch.

The US approached the North Koreans last weekend ``and told them that we thought the idea of a launch was a very bad idea,'' he said, without elaborating.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan renewed his concern, saying a missile launch "in a region like the Korean Peninsula, at a time when we have lots of difficult issues ... is not a wise thing to do and North Korea must listen to what the international community is telling it."

The North has said it is willing to talk to Washington about its missile concerns, repeating its long-held desire for direct meetings with the Americans. Washington, however, has refused, and insists it will only meet the North amid six-nation talks aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons program.

South Korea said the North won't get any US concessions from firing a missile.

On Friday, US forces wrapped up massive Pacific war games in a show of military might. The five days of exercises -- the largest in the Pacific since the Vietnam War -- brought together three aircraft carriers along with 22,000 troops and 280 warplanes off the island of Guam in the western Pacific.

The exercise "was a demonstration of the US Pacific Command's ability to quickly amass a force ... and project peace, power and presence in the region," Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula said. The US will launch similar war games with seven other countries off Hawaii next week. The monthlong exercises, known as RIMPAC, will bring together forces from Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, South Korea, Britain and the US.

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