North Korea's test-firing of missile raises tensions

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- In an apparent attempt to push the United States into talks, North Korea test-fired a short-range missile Monday amid tension over its suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Analysts said the widely anticipated launch from a base on North Korea's east coast fit a pattern of unusual military maneuvers in recent weeks that seemed designed to pressure Washington into dialogue.

Those maneuvers include the March 2 interception of a U.S. reconnaissance plane by North Korean fighter jets in international airspace off the North's east coast. The North said the move was defensive. There was no hostile fire, and the U.S. plane returned to its base in Japan.

"In the big picture, North Korea is trying to draw the United States to the negotiating table," said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at Sejong Institute, a private research center in Seoul.

"In the short term, North Korea is trying to send a message to Washington saying, 'We are determined to defend our territory.' It's because of suspicion that North Korea is next after Iraq," Paik said.

North Korea wants a nonaggression treaty and economic aid from the United States, which is preparing for war against Iraq. Washington says the U.N. Security Council should handle the North Korean nuclear problem.

In Washington, top Bush administration officials said Sunday the time still isn't ripe for one-on-one talks with North Korea and any lasting solution to the nuclear dispute will need the support of Russia, China and other nations.

Eventual talks

"I think eventually we will be talking to North Korea, but we're not going to simply fall into what I believe is bad practice of saying the only way you can talk to us is directly, when it affects other nations in the region," Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Democrats are pressing the Bush administration to begin direct talks immediately.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on ABC's "This Week" that the United States isn't afraid to talk, "but we need to do so in a way that will bring maximum pressure on North Korea to actually this time not just freeze its weapons of mass destruction, but begin to dismantle them."

The Pentagon had expected a missile launch, citing a North Korean warning to ships to stay out of a sector off the east coast from Saturday to Tuesday.

Maj. Kim Ki-Beom, a spokesman at the South Korean Defense Ministry, said the missile was believed to be an anti-ship missile similar to one that North Korea test-fired on Feb. 24, the eve of the inauguration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

South Korean officials said the second missile was launched from a pad at Sinsang-ri and flew 68 miles. It had a range of 99 miles.

U.S. and South Korean officials are more concerned about a possible North Korean test of a Taepodong-2 missile, which analysts believe is capable of reaching parts of the United States, though there are widespread doubts about its reach and accuracy. In 1998, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific.

In October, U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted having a covert nuclear program in violation of a 1994 deal. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments; the North retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting a nuclear reactor.

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