North Korea declared today that it has a right to carry out long-range missile tests, a day after U.S. officials said the Pentagon has activated a new missile defense system and as several countries called for Pyongyang to refrain from launching a missile.
“It is not right for others to tell us what to do about our sovereign rights,” Han Song-ryol, the deputy chief of North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, told a South Korean news agency, although he also said his country was open to talks with the U.S. on the issue.
“The United States says it is concerned about our missile test launch. Our position is, ‘OK then, let us talk about it,’” Mr. Han told Yonhap.
White House officials would not say what the consequences would be if North Korea tested a missile, and officials at the Pentagon and State Department refused to comment on whether the U.S. ground-based interceptor system was up and running, as The Washington Times reported yesterday.
“There are many options, and we are simply not going to tip our hand as to what the possible response should be,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters traveling on Air Force One with the president, who landed in Austria yesterday for a meeting with leaders of the European Union today.
National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the North Koreans “seem to be moving forward towards a launch, but the intelligence is not conclusive at this point.”
He said, however, that the rogue nation’s moves have unified key U.S. partners in the region, including Japan, which has indicated it might sponsor a United Nations Security Council resolution on the matter.
“A lot of folks are sending messages to the North Koreans this would be a bad idea,” Mr. Hadley said.
Poor weather conditions prevailed yesterday over northeastern North Korea, where U.S. intelligence agencies have been monitoring a long-range Taepodong missile being fueled at a base along the east coast, U.S. officials said.
The missile is thought to be a Taepodong-2 capable of hitting part of U.S. territory. The North also claims to have built nuclear weapons.
Bush administration officials said Monday that the new ground-based interceptor missile defense system is operational and that one option being considered if a missile is launched is to shoot it down with one of 11 interceptors deployed at Fort Greeley, Alaska, or Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
Amid heightened tensions over the North Korean plans, the U.S. military is conducting its largest war games in decades. Three U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups are exercising near the Pacific island of Guam as part of the maneuvers.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency also has planned a sea-based missile defense test from an Aegis cruiser near Hawaii for today.
The North’s declaration prompted Japan and South Korea to pledge cooperation to thwart the test plans.
In China, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu urged “all parties” to act in ways helpful to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, but did not publicly call on North Korea to call off its launch.
“China has taken note of reporting on the possible launch of a missile” by North Korea, she said. “We do not have a complete understanding of the situation. Under the current situation, we hope all sides concerned can put in more effort to do things which are good for calming the situation and good for regional peace and stability.”
Yesterday, Japan’s Kyodo news quoted North Korean Foreign Ministry official Ri Pyong-dok as saying that North Korea is not bound by the joint declaration at international nuclear disarmament talks last year or a missile-test moratorium agreed to by Tokyo and Pyongyang in 2002. The North had ceased firings since 1999, and leader Kim Jong-il reaffirmed the moratorium in 2004.
But Mr. Han said the moratorium had been respected in times of dialogue with Washington and Japan.
“When we were engaged in hectic dialogue with Washington and Tokyo for rapprochement, we said we would suspend missile test launches for the time when the dialogue was under way in order to help improve the atmosphere,” he told Yonhap.
Any launch would be a provocative step and contrary to North Korea’s self-imposed ban on missile testing, said U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. He would not speculate on any consequences of either a launch or a U.S. intercept.
“Our preferred course of action is that there not be a missile launch or a missile test,” he said. “And we’ve made that clear. And we’ve also made clear that any such action would result in North Korea’s further isolation in the international community.”
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the North Korean plans highlight the need for U.S. missile defenses.
“Communist North Korea’s current actions directly underscore the need for the United States to deploy an effective missile defense system capable of defeating these threats,” Mr. Hunter said. “We can’t wait around idly while our enemies build and test long-range missiles capable of attacking American cities.”
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report while traveling to Europe with the president on Air Force One.