South Korea’s defense minister said Thursday that Seoul believes North Korea’s missile launch is not imminent despite concern in the region that the communist nation would test-fire a long-range missile.
“It is our judgment that a launch is not imminent,” Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung told a parliamentary meeting in comments confirmed by his ministry.
“There are various procedures before the launch, and based on those procedures, that is how we see it,” Yoon said, without elaborating.
Worries over a possible North Korean launch have grown in recent weeks after reports of activity at the country’s launch site on its northeastern coast where U.S. officials say a Taepodong-2 missile—believed capable of reaching parts of the United States—is possibly being fueled.
China weighs in
China on Thursday issued its strongest statement of concern over a possible North Korean missile launch, and Pyongyang warned of 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.”
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.
North Korea makes overtures
A North Korean diplomat said in reported comments Wednesday that the country wanted to engage in talks with Washington 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 North Korea 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 trying to shoot down the missile, U.S. officials have said.
China said Thursday that all parties should focus on finding a peaceful solution and also urged the North to return to the nuclear talks.
The sides should “be determined to realize a nuclear-free Korean peninsula,” 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.
Complaints about spy flights
North Korea has issued repeated complaints in recent weeks about alleged U.S. spy flights, including in the skies off the coast where the missile test facility is located.
“The U.S. imperialist warmongers have been intensifying military provocations” against the North, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency said. “The ceaseless illegal intrusion of the planes has created a grave danger of military conflict in the air above the region.”
The U.S. 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 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 playing down Pyongyang’s capacity to load a nuclear warhead on its rockets.
Preparations for ‘worst-case scenario’
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.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso vowed to continue efforts to persuade North Korea not to launch the missile.
“It’s crucial to get North Korea to restrain itself from a missile launch,” Aso said. “We should gather efforts before it happens, not afterward.”
Japanese police were preparing for a “worst-case scenario,” including the possibility that parts of a missile could fall on Japanese soil, said Iwao Uruma, commissioner general of the National Police Agency.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok said it was still unclear whether the North would fire a missile but the “government is getting ready for all possibilities,” according to his aide Kim Sung-bae.
About 1,000 people, including army veterans and activists, staged an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul, condemning the missile threat.