TOKYO -- While North Korea's negotiators were dragging out the standoff over a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the Communist government's engineers conducted what appears to be the first successful test of the country's home-grown mid-range missile. Japanese officials fear that the missile could travel as far as some of Japan's most populous cities.
The tests, conducted on the Sea of Japan on May 29 and 30, are believed to have involved the Rodong 1, a missile North Korea has been developing for several years and is preparing to export to Iran in return for oil. U.S. intelligence officials have said that the missile is believed to be capable of carrying a payload of chemical weapons or perhaps a small nuclear device.
Although the test was apparently monitored by both U.S. and Japanese officials, it was not revealed until Friday. The test was described by a senior official in the office of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa who briefed Japanese reporters just hours before North Korea averted a major confrontation with the United States and its allies at the United Nations by announcing that, at least for now, it would not withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The key nuclear sites that may reveal how much plutonium the Pyongyang government has produced remain closed to international inspectors, a senior Japanese official said yesterday. "Most importantly, we still think they are moving forward with their weapons project," the official added.
A senior intelligence official in Tokyo said that "the international community has not so much leverage" over North Korea now, in part because it can't further isolate one of the world's most isolated nations.
In Japan, news that North Korea had suspended its withdrawal from the treaty was overshadowed by detailed, if still somewhat murky, accounts of the missile test.
The Japanese official who described the test insisted that he not be identified, but he often acts as a spokesman for Japanese prime ministers. The official said that Japan's Defense Ministry "was very much shocked" by the test, in which a missile was launched from a base near Wonsan, on the southeastern coast of North Korea.
According to some accounts, it was aimed at a target buoy floating in the Sea of Japan and flew in the direction of the Noto Peninsula of Japan. Newspapers published a photograph yesterday of a North Korean frigate in the region on the Sea of Japan, apparently taken May 29.
The Rodong 1 is reported to have a range of about 600 miles, enough to reach Osaka, Japan's second-largest metropolitan area and a major manufacturing center. But in the test, officials say, it went only about 300 miles. According to some reports, North Korea also shot off two other missiles, believed to be versions of the Scud.
The official said that Japan and the United States had been tipped off about the test in advance by an "Israeli military official who visited here recently." Israel has been carefully monitoring the progress of the Rodong 1 because North Korea has been negotiating to sell the missile to Iran in exchange for much-needed fuel. Launched from Iran, the missile would easily be able to strike Israel.
News of the test led officials of Japan's Defense Ministry to declare that they are thinking about buying a Patriot missile defense system and other anti-missile systems.
On Thursday, Shigeru Hatakeyama, the head of the Defense Policy Bureau, told a parliamentary committee that Japan "does not have the ability to deal with missiles that come in at a large angle of elevation" but that it could deal with the Rodong 1 "to a certain extent" with new Patriot missile batteries.
Japan's foreign minister, Kabun Muto, said Friday that Tokyo would be forced to take "countermeasures" if it is confirmed that North Korea was capable of striking much of Japan, but he did not elaborate.
While much money flows from Japan's sizable North Korean community to the North Korean capital, Japanese officials say they can't cut off the flow unless the U.N. Security Council takes some concrete action.