Monday, October 20, 2003

North Korea yesterday conducted the third test flight of a new cruise missile hours after President Bush offered the communist state a concession aimed at resolving the nuclear-arms standoff.

U.S. officials said the antiship weapon was fired from the northeast coast of North Korea and traveled into the East Sea/Japan Sea.

The missile, identified as a modification of the Chinese-designed HY-2 Silkworm, has a range of about 100 miles, making it an “over-the-horizon” threat to U.S. ships, U.S. officials said. Silkworms have a range of about 60 miles.

North Korea’s first modified-Silkworm test, in February, initially was identified by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as a routine test of an “old” missile. Later analysis by U.S. intelligence indicated it was a significantly upgraded weapon.

A second flight test took place March 12, but intelligence officials labeled it a failure because of guidance-system problems. U.S. intelligence first learned of the missile upgrade from observing a military base in Angol, in northeastern North Korea.

Senior Bush administration officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand, played down the missile test, calling it a grab for attention.

Mr. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged Pyongyang in a statement “to refrain from any action which would exacerbate the situation.”

North Korea has threatened in news reports in recent weeks to demonstrate the country’s “deterrent,” a statement interpreted by U.S. officials as a long-range missile test or even an underground nuclear test.

Pyongyang suspended tests of its new long-range missile known as the Taepo Dong.

Despite the poverty of the country, North Korea has been building or selling a variety of missiles, including short-range Scuds, 620-mile-range No Dong missiles and 1,300-mile Taepo Dong weapons.

Cruise-missile development is believed to be a response by missile producers such as North Korea and China to progress by the United States and others in the field of missile defense — which is more effective against ballistic missiles, which are fired into space, than against cruise missiles, which fly in the atmosphere, usually at low altitudes.

The new test is expected to rattle Japan, which announced earlier this year that it will deploy missile defenses in coming years to counter North Korea. In 1998, a Taepo Dong test missile flew over Japan on its way to an impact area in the Pacific Ocean.

In Seoul, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said this flight test was similar to the earlier ones.

“The land-to-ship missile North Korea test-fired today is seen as part of its annual exercise,” a military spokesman told Yonhap news agency. “There were two or three similar missile exercises.”

Mr. Bush announced Sunday in Bangkok that the United States was open to providing North Korea with written security guarantees, though not a binding treaty under international law, in exchange for Pyongyang’s dismantling of its nuclear-weapons program.

The guarantees would be a joint declaration by the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia that North Korea would not be attacked.

The announcement marked a reversal by the Bush administration, which until Sunday demanded that North Korea agree to give up its nuclear-arms program before any security assurances were offered.

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