U.S., allies pressing N. Korea not to launch

April 03, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -The United States and its allies stepped up pressure Thursday on North Korea to scrap its planned satellite launch, with President Barack Obama agreeing with the South Korean president to respond sternly if Pyongyang fires a long-range rocket.

Defense officials said they were not planning to shoot down the missile but that the United States would increase diplomatic pressure on North Korea if it goes ahead, as expected. Pyongyang would find itself further removed from what it wants from the outside world, including diplomatic recognition, trade and investment, and security guarantees.

"They need things," a U.S. official said.

Fueling of the North Korean rocket has begun and trailers and vehicles with propellant have been observed at the launch site, U.S. officials said.

International concern about the imminent launch is based on a belief that it is intended to serve as an intercontinental ballistic missile test by the nuclear-armed rogue nation. Western nations say the satellite launch would be illegal under United Nations resolutions restricting North Korea's missile programs.

North Korea heightened its rhetoric Thursday, saying that it would retaliate against any attempts to destroy its rocket and also threatening to shoot down U.S. surveillance aircraft. But U.S. officials did not take the threat seriously.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke to counterparts in Japan and South Korea late Wednesday, assuring them that the United States will live up to its commitments to defend its allies.

North Korea has insisted that it will use the launch to put a satellite into orbit. U.S. officials have said they do not believe the rocket poses a direct danger to America.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates has made it clear that if there was a direct threat from the North Korean launch, the U.S. military has the ability to destroy the missile.

"We have the means to protect the American people," he said.

The U.S. military has rockets and sophisticated tracking radar in Alaska and California designed to intercept ballistic missiles. The U.S. military could also use ship-based missiles to destroy the North Korean rocket soon after it is launched.

Defense officials said the legality of shooting down a rocket carrying a satellite is questionable, even if the North Korean launch is illegal under U.N. resolutions.

Officials expect a launch as early as Saturday, although the window for the rocket to be fired extends through Wednesday.

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