- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

SEOUL — North Korea fired a salvo of test missiles into its coastal waters yesterday, flexing its naval muscles as South Korea launched its most advanced destroyer, armed with a high-tech U.S. air defense system.

The moves came during a standoff over implementing communist North Korea’s promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and just days before the divided Koreas are scheduled to hold high-level reconciliation talks in Seoul.

Reaction was muted — unlike the response last July to the North’s test of a long-range missile capable of hitting Japan and perhaps parts of the United States, or in October to the North’s underground explosion of a nuclear device.

South Korea said yesterday’s missile test apparently was part of the North’s annual military exercises and involved short-range missiles, adding that the firings were unlikely to sink next week’s talks.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the United States viewed the test “as a routine exercise that they do from time to time.”

U.S. criticism of the Pyongyang regime has been muted recently, reflecting the eagerness of American officials to make progress on the nuclear disarmament accord with the North that has been stalled by a financial dispute.

At least some of the missiles were fired off North Korea’s eastern coast into the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the action “extremely regrettable.” While saying the test was not a “serious” threat to Japan’s national security, he said it undermined international trust in North Korea’s reclusive government.

The test firing occurred as South Korea celebrated the launch of a new destroyer equipped with Aegis radar, a system that will greatly enhance the South’s ability to locate, track and shoot down North Korean aircraft and missiles. South Korea is one of only five nations armed with the U.S. technology.

The 7,600-ton, KDX-III class destroyer set sail yesterday afternoon from the southern port city of Ulsan. Its Aegis combat system is able to detect and trace about 1,000 targets and attack 20 of them at the same time, South Korea’s navy said.

South Korea and Japanese analysts said the missile test was most likely a response to the South’s new ship.

“North Korea fired them as a warning to South Korea’s deployment of its Aegis-equipped destroyer,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea specialist at Japan’s Waseda University. “This shows North Korea, whose navy is rather small, is extremely alarmed.”

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed the test, but said it was still investigating how many missiles were fired and exactly what kind they were.

“The short-range missile launches are believed to be part of a routine exercise that North Korea has conducted annually on the east and the west coasts in the past,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited an unidentified Unification Ministry official as saying the tests were unlikely to further strain relations.

“I understand that North Korea test fires short-range missiles every year. It’s not likely to have any immediate effect on inter-Korean relations,” such as the Cabinet-level talks set for Seoul, the official was quoted as saying.

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