- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009


A last-minute 1-0 victory by South Korea’s soccer team against opponent North Korea offered the South a rare taste of one-upmanship at a time of growing hostility from its rival. After round after round of attacks on a seemingly unbreakable North Korean perimeter, South Korean striker Kim Chi-woo brought the partisan crowd to its feet with just minutes to spare. But the soccer drama this week at Seoul’s Sangam World Cup Stadium took place in the shadow of ever-increasing tension, as North Korea ratchets up bellicosity toward the South, as well as the United States and Japan.

The launch of what Pyongyang calls a satellite but which uses the same system - the Taepodong-2 rocket - as an intercontinental ballistic missile is expected next week.

The Pentagon said Thursday that final preparations for the launch had begun, and the crisis briefly diverted President Obama’s attention from the global financial meltdown when he met South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of an economic summit in London.

The two leaders called for a “stern” and “unified” response if the North goes ahead with the launch.

In a separate development, the North said it will put on trial two American reporters who were arrested two weeks ago on the country´s border with China. If convicted of espionage charges, they could face a decade in labor camp, Reporters Without Borders has warned.

Also, a South Korean worker arrested Monday by North Korean authorities in the Kaesong joint industrial zone - just north of the North-South border - for reportedly criticizing the communist nation remains in detention without access to South Korean officials.

The missile launch is of greatest concern because a successful test would go a long way toward the North developing the capacity to deliver a nuclear bomb almost anywhere.

Although Seoul and Washington have vowed to let the rocket fly, Japan is reportedly mulling shooting it down. Publicly, Japanese officials say they will not shoot unless the rocket is headed for Japanese soil.

Some analysts fear the threat of the North developing long-range nuclear missiles may be graver than it appears.

“I have seen government intelligence assessments - I cannot say which government or agency, but it is one that is very close to this issue - that the North Koreans have nuclear warheads,” said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group´s Seoul office.

Some pundits state that detained American television reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee provide insurance for Pyongyang´s upcoming test.

“I think they are there to make sure the Americans don´t do anything rash over the missile launch,” said Brian R. Myers, a specialist in North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University.

The missile launch is not simply a strategic threat: It also increases the possibility of jittery global investors recalibrating South Korea´s sovereign risk profile.

“The missile hits the South Koreans where it hurts - in their economy,” Mr. Myers said. “The last thing Lee Myung-bak needs now is international investor concern.”

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