- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

SEOUL — North Korea vowed yesterday to increase its “military deterrent” to cope with what it called U.S. attempts to provoke war, amid signs that the country was preparing to test a long-range missile that could reach the continental United States.

In Washington, President Bush’s spokesman said the United States expected North Korea to maintain a self-imposed freeze on testing long-range missiles. That moratorium was announced in 1999.

“We hope there’s not going to be a launch,” Tony Snow said.

Meanwhile, Japan said it would file a “fierce” protest and seek an immediate U.N. Security Council meeting if the North test-fires what is thought to be a Taepodong-2 missile.

Reuters reported that it appeared that North Korea had completed fueling the missile at the Musudan-ri facility in North Hamgyong province, according to U.S. officials. Officials told Reuters that Pyongyang might still postpone a launch, but that such a postponement was unlikely given the complexity of siphoning fuel back out of the missile.

There was no mention of a missile in a report from North Korea’s official press about a national meeting marking the anniversary of leader Kim Jong-il’s starting work in the country’s Communist Party.

However, North Koreans were instructed to raise the national flag and watch television in anticipation of a “message to the people,” reported Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper.

North Korea has not fired a long-range missile since August 1998, when it sent a rocket flying over parts of Japanese territory in a launch that shocked the region.

But signs of a launch have grown in recent days, with reports saying a missile has been assembled at a launch pad on the North’s eastern coast and fueled for launch.

“There are signs” of a missile launch, Jung Tae-ho, a spokesman at the South Korean president’s office, told the Associated Press, without elaborating. He said security officials were “closely watching the situation.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing a South Korean government official, reported that the weather at the North Korean launch site was bad, indicating that the North may not fire its missile immediately.

Satellite weather images posted on the Web site of the South’s Korea Meteorological Administration showed clouds at the launch site in northeastern North Korea as of early yesterday evening.

A missile launch “depends a lot on weather conditions,” a South Korean intelligence official told AP. A nighttime launch is considered unlikely.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said his country would not immediately resort to arms if North Korea fires a missile but would take the issue to the United Nations.

“We will naturally file a stern protest, and it will be fierce,” Mr. Aso said on TV Asahi, adding that the North would gain nothing from the test.

Mr. Aso also reportedly said it would be “inevitable” that the Security Council would consider imposing sanctions on Pyongyang if it goes ahead with the missile launch.

Speaking on Fuji TV, Mr. Aso said Tokyo could impose sanctions on the North in the event of a missile launch because that would violate Pyongyang’s commitment to impose a moratorium on such tests.

At the North Korean national meeting yesterday, officials talked about increasing the North’s “military deterrent” — a phrase commonly used by the country to refer to its nuclear program, which Pyongyang contends that it needs for a defense to a U.S. attack. Washington denies any intention to invade.

“The [North] Korean army and people will do their best to increase the military deterrent with sharp vigilance to cope with the moves of the U.S., which is hellbent on provocations for war of aggression on the DPRK, resorting to its anti-DPRK policy, and its followers Japan and other bellicose forces,” said Choe Thae Bok, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

DPRK refers to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

The United States and Japan have confirmed that the assembly of what is thought to be a Taepodong-2 missile has been completed with two stages at the launch site, based on photos from satellites, Japan’s largest daily, the Yomiuri newspaper, reported yesterday.

The Taepodong-2 missile is thought to be the North’s most advanced model with the capability to reach the United States with a light payload.

The paper also said it appeared that North Korea has begun filling the missile with fuel, citing U.S. government officials who conveyed information Saturday to the Japanese government through unofficial channels.

Yonhap, citing diplomatic sources in Washington, also reported that the missile already may have been fueled, with satellite photos showing tens of fuel tanks at the launch site.

The missile concerns come amid an extended impasse at the six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear-weapons program. The talks — involving the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia — were last held in November.

“We expect them to come back to the table. We do not want to have a missile test out of North Korea,” Mr. Snow told “Fox News Sunday.”

The North has said it has a nuclear weapon, but it is not thought to have a design that would be small and light enough to place on top of a missile.

Associated Press reporters Bo-mi Lim and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul and Chisaki Watanabe in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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