China issued its strongest statement of concern yet Thursday over a possible North Korean long-range missile launch, while Pyongyang warned of possible clashes in the skies as it accused U.S. spy planes of repeated illegal intrusions.
Beijing is the North’s last major ally and key benefactor, and Washington has urged China to press the North to back down on its potential missile test.
“We are very concerned about the current situation,” Jiang Yu, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, said at a regular briefing in Beijing. “We hope all parties can do more in the interest of regional peace and stability.”
Jiang said China would “continue to make constructive efforts.”
President Bush praised China on Wednesday for “taking responsibility in dealing with North Korea.”
Worries over a potential North Korean launch have grown in recent weeks following reports of activity at the North’s launch site on its northeastern coast, where U.S. officials say a Taepodong-2 missile — believed capable of reaching the United States — is possibly being fueled.
There are diverging expert opinions on whether fueling would mean a launch was imminent — due to the highly corrosive nature of the fuel — or whether the North could wait a month or more.
A North Korean diplomat said in reported comments Wednesday that the country wanted to engage in talks with the United States over its concerns of a possible missile test. But the Bush administration rejected the overture, saying threats aren’t the way to seek dialogue.
“You don’t normally engage in conversations by threatening to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles,” U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said.
The U.S. instead called on the North to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program.
Bolton said he was continuing discussions with U.N. Security Council members on possible action, and had met with Russia’s U.N. ambassador. Washington is weighing responses to a potential test that could include attempting to shoot down the missile, U.S. officials have said.
China said Thursday that all parties should focus on finding a peaceful solution to the issue and also urged the North to return to the nuclear talks.
The sides should “be determined to realize a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and ... the notion of the process of the six-party talks,” Jiang said. “China stands ready to work with relevant parties in the international community to press ahead with the process.”
The North agreed at the those talks in September to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid, but no progress has been made on implementing the accord.
U.S. spy flights?
North Korea has issued repeated complaints in recent weeks about alleged American spy flights, including in the skies off the coast where the missile test facility is located.
“Military provocations by U.S. warmongers against (North Korea) are reaching their extreme,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said Thursday. “The series of illegal infiltration and spying by reconnaissance planes of U.S. aggression forces is creating a danger of military clash in the skies.”
The United States has sent ships off the Korean coast capable of detecting and tracking a missile launch, a Pentagon official said Wednesday. South Korean aircraft have also been flying reconnaissance over the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, said the military official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.
Japan said Thursday it, too, had sent naval ships and patrol planes to monitor the developments in North Korea, while downplaying Pyongyang’s capacity to load a nuclear warhead atop its rockets.
The North has claimed to have a nuclear weapon, but isn’t thought to have an advanced design that could be placed on a warhead. Japanese Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki backed that belief at the parliamentary hearing.
“At this point, we have encountered no information that indicates North Korea has the technology,” he said.
The Korea Meteorological Administration said the weather was cloudy and it could rain over the launch site Thursday, which dims the chances of an immediate test launch.
In South Korea, about 1,000 people including army veterans and activists staged an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul, condemning the North’s missile threat. Some activists set a North Korean flag on fire and displayed several replicas of a North Korean missile, including one with crossed-out photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.