- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

CHICAGO — President Bush yesterday said the newly operational U.S. missile defense system had a “reasonable chance” of shooting down the long-range missile that North Korea fired Tuesday toward the United States, reportedly targeted to fall near Hawaii.

The president acknowledged that the ballistic missile defense shield remains “modest,” but sent a message to dictator Kim Jong-il that the United States is capable of defending itself against an aerial strike.

“I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down, at least that’s what the military commanders told me,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference in the rotunda of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

“Our anti-ballistic systems are modest, they’re new, they’re new research, we’re testing them. And so … it’s hard for me to give you a probability of success,” he said.

At the United Nations, Japan introduced a Security Council draft resolution that would prohibit any nation from transferring funds, material and technology that could be used in North Korea’s missile or weapons of mass destruction programs. The United States, Britain and France are supporting the draft.

China, which is an economic lifeline to North Korea by providing it with trade, aid and oil, doesn’t want to push too hard, worried that if the Pyongyang government fails, North Korean refugees would stream into China or that the North would unify with South Korea — a strong U.S. ally.

Russia, also leery of sanctions, wants the Security Council to pass a nonbinding statement with the goal of getting North Korea back into six-party talks.

Japan’s Ambassador Kenzo Oshima said he wanted a vote on the draft today if possible, yet he and other diplomats said negotiations continued on the resolution.

That raised the possibility that the decision to introduce the resolution was, in part, a negotiating tactic meant to win concessions from China and Russia.

South Korea has condemned the launches and called for patient dialogue with North Korea, rather than sanctions, although Seoul said it would withhold food and fertilizer shipments to its neighbor until the missile crisis is resolved.

In Beijing, following brief talks with Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said there was no agreement on the contentious issue of sanctions.

The Bush administration was criticized by Democrats and others when it sought to create a shield that could take out a long-range missile, but the president said yesterday that because there are threats such as Mr. Kim’s, that means “we need” an anti-ballistic missile system.

Although U.S. interceptor missiles were on alert before North Korea fired seven missiles, none was deployed. North Korea’s missile launches on the Fourth of July began eight minutes after the space shuttle Discovery took off.

The Washington Times first reported last month that the Pentagon had activated its new U.S. ground-based defense system, which includes 11 long-range interceptor missiles — nine deployed at Fort Greeley in Alaska and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The system was switched from test to operational mode within the past two weeks, officials said.

Data from U.S. and Japanese Aegis radar-equipped destroyers and surveillance aircraft on the long-range Taepodong-2’s angle of takeoff and altitude indicated that it was targeted for waters near Hawaii, the Sankei Shimbun reported in Japan, citing multiple sources in the United States.

The newspaper said North Korea may have chosen Hawaii to show that it was capable of landing a missile there, or because it is home port to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. But the missile broke up less than a minute into its flight, according to U.S. officials.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on whether the missile was heading toward Hawaii.

“There is some ongoing analysis,” he said, noting that it will take more than technical flight information to determine the intent of the North Koreans on the long-range missile.

During yesterday’s press conference the president fielded a half-dozen questions on the missile launches, which North Korea called “drills.”

He said he was working through the diplomatic process — which he called “slow and cumbersome” — and again urged world powers to speak with a unified message in condemning the actions of North Korea.

Mr. Bush also vowed to keep hunting for terror leader Osama bin Laden, a search that has been fruitless in the nearly five years since the September 11 attacks.

“No ands, ifs or buts, my judgment is it’s a matter of time, unless we stop looking, and we’re not going to stop looking as long as I’m president,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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