N. Korea tests missile, raising Asia tensions Rocket crosses Japan

nations voice concern

September 01, 1998|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Raising tensions in East Asia, North Korea staged its first missile test in five years yesterday, firing a two-stage rocket whose second stage flew over Japan, one of America's closest allies.

The test of the Taepo Dong 1 missile, which has an estimated range of 1,200 miles, confirms North Korea's continued pursuit of high-tech weaponry despite desperate economic straits and severe famine that may have killed up to 3 million of its people in the past few years.

The Clinton administration criticized the test but avoided any move that might escalate tensions. It did not break off diplomatic talks in New York that are intended to improve relations.

Nor did Washington focus on the missile's provocative flight over Japan.

"This development is a matter of deep concern to the United States because of its potentially destabilizing impact in Northeast Asia and beyond," said Lee McClenny, a State Department spokesman. South Korea issued a similar statement.

"We see this as a very dangerous act," said Japan's chief government spokesman, Hiromu Nonaka. A South Korean news agency reported that Japan reacted by refusing to help pay for a new nuclear reactor that the West had promised in exchange for a halt in North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

A U.S. intelligence official said the test marks an effort by the North Koreans to master the firing of missiles in stages, a crucial milestone in the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

"Everyone's been waiting to see when they'd test it," said Steven Zaloga, a missile analyst. "It does sound like they're actively pursuing long-range missiles."

"So far, the test appears to have been successful," the official said, although North Korea must overcome significant hurdles before it possesses a long-range missile.

The Taepo Dong 2 missile under development has a potential range of 2,400 to 3,600 miles, which would put within reach major cities and military bases in Alaska and approach the westernmost Hawaiian islands, U.S. intelligence agencies say.

Because of North Korea's impoverished economy, some analysts viewed the test as a blatant pitch for money, confronting the United States and its allies with a tough choice: They can pay North Korea to halt the program or watch as Pyongyang markets its medium-range missiles abroad.

The North Koreans are the main source of tactical ballistic missiles for most Third World armed forces. Pyongyang has sold its earlier No Dong technology to Iran, an enemy of U.S. interests in the Middle East, and to Pakistan, which is locked in a nuclear race with India.

The test comes a week before Kim Jong Il is expected to formally succeed his father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, as North Korea's president and head of state.

Some observers viewed the test as a muscle-flexing move by the military to enlist support for Kim.

The test led to renewed calls in Congress for a more rapid deployment of a U.S. missile defense system. The Clinton administration has favored developing a limited system by 2000 and deploying it by 2003, but only if the U.S. intelligence community deems a threat warrants it.

"The administration needs to wake up," said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican and a leading advocate of missile defense. "There are 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea and another 50,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, and the United States has no theater missile defense system that is capable of protecting them from the Taepo Dong 1.

"And from what we know about this missile," he said, "it can even reach U.S. soil with a range that can strike U.S. citizens on Guam."

The test was one of several recent actions by North Korea that have alarmed the West. North Korea, which froze its nuclear weapons program as part of a 1994 agreement with the United States, has threatened to restart it because of frustration over delays in fulfilling the U.S. side of the deal.

Congress has balked at providing money to supply North Korea with the heavy fuel oil it is supposed to receive before a new light-water nuclear reactor is built. The reactor is behind schedule, and the United States has taken only minor steps toward easing its economic embargo of the North.

Even as the missile test was being conducted, North Korean and U.S. diplomats were preparing to resume their longest-running talks to date, on implementing the 1994 agreement.

The administration had said the talks were going well. North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Kwan, was described as upbeat Friday in meetings with congressional staff members and Korea experts in Washington.

But Robert Manning, head of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the test and the North Koreans' refusal to deal with the moderate South Korean government of President Kim Dae Jung raise the question, "Are we ever going to be able to deal with them?"

Since the early 1980s, North Korea has pursued an aggressive program that has progressed from developing and exporting short- range ballistic missiles to work on medium- and long-range missiles, said a Pentagon report last fall that chronicled the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In July, a federal commission led by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld concluded that North Korea was "working hard" on the Taepo Dong 2 missile.

Lightweight variations of the missile could fly up to 6,000 miles, the report said, placing at risk western U.S. territory.

The report also said that given the difficulties the U.S. intelligence community had in assessing the pace and scope of the No Dong missile program, "the U.S. may have very little warning prior to development of the Taepo Dong 2."

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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