N. Korea gives no hint on rocket, diplomat says

Sunday, June 25, 2006

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea gave no hint of whether it will fire a long-range missile as widely feared, a New Zealand diplomat who visited Pyongyang said Saturday. A top U.S. defense official expressed confidence the United States could intercept a 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 visit, but was given no clue about Pyongyang's plans for the launch.

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

Coombs, visiting Pyongyang to present her credentials for her new post, met with North Korea'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, U.S. and Asian officials have said. Intelligence reports say fuel tanks have been seen around a missile at the North's launch site, 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 U.S. interceptor rockets could hit and destroy a long-range North Korean missile if President Bush gave the order to attack it on a path to U.S. territory.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, refused to say whether the U.S. missile defense system is on alert for a possible intercept mission, but noted that it has been designed specifically to defend U.S. territory against known missile threats from North Korea.

From "what I have seen and what I know about the system and its capabilities, I am very confident," he said at a news conference.

However, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said earlier this week that the U.S. system had "limited operational capability" to intercept and destroy such a missile.

The North's reported plans to fire the missile have stoked widespread international concern, with its main allies China and Russia warning against it.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said he was "very encouraged" by China and Russia's concern. He said the United States approached the North Koreans last weekend "and told them that we thought the idea of a launch was a very bad idea."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reiterated 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 insists it will only meet the North amid six-nation talks aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons program.

On Friday, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.

North Korea called the biennial drills a rehearsal for invasion, saying Friday night that it would "react against the reckless provocations of the aggressors with strong measures for self-defense."

Japan and the United States, meanwhile, signed an agreement to expand cooperation on ballistic missile defense development. Japan's Defense Agency also said a high-resolution radar that can detect a ballistic missile had been deployed at a base in northern Japan.

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