South Korea downplays test of missile by communist foes

Monday, May 2, 2005

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea played down the significance of a North Korean missile test the day before, saying it involved a short-range missile without nuclear capabilities and warning against linking the issue to a dispute over the North's atomic ambitions.

North Korea apparently test fired a missile into the Sea of Japan on Sunday, raising new fears about Pyongyang's nuclear intentions just days after a U.S. intelligence official said the secretive Stalinist state could arm a missile with a nuclear warhead.

"The missile that North Korea recently fired is a short-range missile and is far from the one that can carry a nuclear weapon," Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon told South Korea's Yonhap news agency today. "This isn't a case to be linked to the nuclear dispute."

Concerning reports that Washington warned allies that Pyongyang might be ready to carry out an underground nuclear test as early as June, Song said South Korea had not received such a warning. Song is South Korea's top envoy to the nuclear dispute.

Six-nation talks -- involving the United States, two Koreas, Russia, China and Japan -- aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions have been stalled since June.

South Korean officials have said they have not detected any signs that Pyongyang is preparing for a nuclear test.

News of the test launch first appeared in Japanese media, which cited U.S. military officials as having informed the Japanese and South Korean governments of Sunday's test launch, which took the missile about 65 miles off the North Korean coast.

Later, White House chief of staff Andrew Card said there was an apparent test.

"It appears that there was a test of a short-range missile by the North Koreans and it landed in the Sea of Japan. We're not surprised by this," Card said on CNN's "Late Edition." "The North Koreans have tested their missiles before. They've had some failures."

In Japan, a Defense Agency official said on condition of anonymity Monday that Tokyo believes the missile only flew an extremely short distance and would not pose an immediate threat to Japan's national security.

The missile is believed to be a Russian-made SS21 with a range of 75 miles, or an upgraded version of the Silkworm, which has a 63-mile range, Japan's national Asahi newspaper said.

On Thursday, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the U.S. Senate that the North Koreans knew how to arm a missile with a nuclear weapon -- a potentially significant advance for the communist state.

He did not specify whether he was talking about a short-range or long-range missile.

North Korea has test fired short-range missiles many times. In 2003, it test fired short-range, land-to-ship missiles at least three times during a period of heightened tension over its nuclear weapons program.

Sunday's test, however, occurred at an especially worrisome time as the North appeared to have resumed efforts to move forward with its atomic weapons program. South Korean officials said last month that Pyongyang had recently shut down a nuclear reactor, possibly to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea shocked the region in 1998 by test-firing a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The North said it was an attempt to put a satellite in orbit.

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 western United States, though there are widespread doubts about its range and accuracy.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: