Monday, June 19, 2006

North Korea Appears Set to Launch Missile

New York Times
June 18, 2006
North Korea Appears Set to Launch Missile

WASHINGTON, June 18 — North Korea appears to have completed fueling of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States, American officials said today, a move that greatly increases the probability that Pyongyang will actually go ahead with a launch.

After analyzing satellite images, American officials said they believed that booster rockets were loaded onto a launch pad and fuel tanks fitted to a missile at a site in North Korea's remote east coast. Fueling a missile is generally considered close to an irreversible step, since it is very hard to siphon fuel back out.

The fueling set off a flurry of diplomatic activity over the weekend, as officials from the United States, Japan and China worked furiously to try to forestall a launch. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to her Japanese and Chinese counterparts, urging the Chinese, in particular, to try to pressure North Korea against firing its Taepodong 2 missile.

Demonstrating how seriously they consider this matter, officials at the State Department telephoned North Korean diplomats at that country's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, warning them directly against going ahead with a launch.

Such direct contact is highly unusual, since American officials limit their direct talks with their North Korean counterparts. But "we needed to make sure there was no misunderstanding," one senior Bush administration official said today. .

In Japan, Foreign Minister Taro Aso warned that a miscalculation could result in the missile landing on Japanese territory. "If it is dropped on Japan, it will complicate the story," he told Japanese television today. "It will be regarded as an attack."

Mr. Aso later toned down his language, saying, "we will not right away view it as a military act," but he said Japan would seek an immediate meeting of the Security Council if Pyongyang goes ahead with the missile launch.

A test of the long-range missile by North Korea would be the first since 1998, when it fired a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile over Japan, catching American intelligence officials by surprise. That led Congress to step up its push for deployment of anti-missile defenses.

A year later, in 1999, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile testing and has not fired one since.

But five weeks ago, American officials received satellite images that showed North Korea preparing to test a multiple-stage Taepodong 2 missile. Some Bush administration officials at first suspected that the moves were a grab for attention while Washington's focus was primarily on Iran and a way to press the United States to agree to direct talks. But since then, diplomats on both sides of the Pacific have become increasingly concerned that North Korea does indeed plan to go ahead with a launch.

"Why they are doing this? You will have to ask them," one senior Bush administration official said today. "It is not in anyone's interest; certainly not theirs. For our part, we will not be derailed by their temper tantrums nor have any of our own."

The officials would not be more specific about the information they have received, and most would discuss the matter only after being promised anonymity, saying the sensitive diplomatic and intelligence concerns meant they could not speak for the record.

American knowledge about the Taepodong 2 is limited. The system has never been flight-tested. American intelligence has steadily increased the estimates of its range. In 2001, a National Intelligence Estimate forecast that a three-stage version of the Taepodong 2 missile could reach all of North America with a sizable payload.

The Taepodong 2 is believed to have three stages. The first is thought to be a cluster of North Korea's No Dong missiles; the second stage is believed to be a No Dong missile, and the third stage might be a solid-fueled system, according to experts who have studied what a Taepodong might look like.

A test of the missile would ignite a political chain reaction in Japan, the United States and China. The Bush administration might step up financing for missile defense efforts. Japan might increase its missile defense efforts as well, while hard-liners there might even push to reconsider the nation's nuclear weapons options. Both moves would alienate China.

In North Korea, Pyongyang reportedly told its citizens to raise the national flag at 2 p.m. local time today (1 a.m. Eastern time) and prepare for an announcement on television, a Japanese newspaper said, igniting rumors that a missile test was imminent. But that time came and passed without incident, and American officials say they believe the report was unrelated to a missile test.

North Korea is a secretive Stalinist state and figuring out the motives of its leader, Kim Jong Il, has stymied diplomats for years. But experts say there are two main reasons why the North Korean regime might launch a missile right now.

For one thing, the country's military may well want to verify their missile capability. It has almost eight years since the last missile launch, which occurred in August 1998, and "it may well be that Kim Jong Il is getting a lot of pressure from his generals to verify the design" of the Taepodong 2 missile, said Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under President Bill Clinton.

But, he added, "whenever the North Koreans act up, one has to assume in part at least that they are trying to get the world's attention."

Just two weeks ago — a day after the United States offered to hold direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program — North Korea invited Christopher R. Hill, an assistant secretary of state and chief negotiator on the North's nuclear weapons program, for direct talks in Pyongyang. That offer was immediately rebuffed by the White House, which insisted that the North return to the long-deadlocked six-nation talks instead. The other nations involved in the talks are China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

North Korea has boycotted the talks in recent months after the United States cracked down on financial institutions, including a bank in Macau, that dealt with the government in Pyongyang and with North Korean companies suspected of counterfeiting American dollars and laundering money. If North Korea goes ahead with a missile launching, the already floundering talks would likely go into a deep freeze.

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