- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - President Lee Myung-bak said South Korea opposes any military response to North Korea’s impending rocket launch. Washington’s defense chief said the U.S. won’t try to shoot it down, though Japan deployed warships armed with interceptors to deal with possible fallout of any missile test.

Meanwhile, North Korean authorities detained a South Korean worker at a border factory park for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang’s political system, further raising tensions on the divided peninsula.

The remarks on the rocket launch by Lee and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reflect attempts to be tough with Pyongyang without provoking the regime over a launch that regional powers warn would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution on ballistic activity, analysts said.

Japan, the U.S. and other regional powers suspect that the expected launch between April 4 and 8 _ which Pyongyang says is a communications satellite _ may be a cover for testing a long-range missile capable of reaching the western U.S.

South Korea and the U.S. are taking a measured approach because they want to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations with Pyongyang _ and because the U.S. and North Korea likely will hold their first direct talks since President Barack Obama’s inauguration after the rocket launch set for sometime between April 4 and 8, said analyst Kim Yong-hyun of Seoul’s Dongguk University.

“This puts everyone in a difficult position. Taking action could provoke the North _ that’s the dilemma,” said Peter M. Beck, an analyst who teaches on Korean affairs in Seoul and Washington.

Lee, in an interview with the Financial Times published Monday, stressed he is against using military means or shuttering a joint industrial complex in North Korea, a key source of hard currency for the impoverished nation, as punishment for the rocket launch.

“Taking a harder stance: I don’t think that would necessarily be helpful in achieving” Seoul’s objective of ridding the North of its nuclear weapons program, Lee told the paper.

Tensions that have heightened since Lee took office last year vowing to get tough with Pyongyang were ratcheted up further after Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Monday that North Korean authorities detained a worker at the joint factory complex in the city of Kaesong on the northern side of the border.

The North has assured Seoul it will guarantee the worker’s safety, the ministry said without providing specifics. It is not the first time a South Korean has been detained at Kaesong for similar reasons, and all have been released, the government said.

In Washington, Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday that the U.S. has no plans to try to intercept the North Korean rocket but might consider it if an “aberrant missile” were headed to Hawaii “or something like that.”

Still, Gates said the North’s launch is “a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile” that could carry a nuclear warhead.

Japan had earlier hinted that it would shoot down the rocket, but has since clarified its position and now says it will only fire interceptors if debris from a failed launch appears likely to hit Japan’s territory. Officials say that is highly unlikely, but they are readying the military as a precautionary measure.

Japanese Defense Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to protocol, said Monday that Patriot interceptor missiles have been readied in Tokyo, and ships have been ordered to deploy in the Sea of Japan.

Commercial satellite imagery taken Sunday by DigitalGlobe clearly shows what appears to be a three-stage launch vehicle on the launch pad in Musudan-ni on North Korea’s east coast, said Tim Brown, an analyst for Globalsecurity.org.

However, it remains unclear whether the rocket is a long-range Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile or a space launch vehicle designed to carry a satellite, Brown said.

“The loading of liquid fuel from nearby fuel storage buildings and final check-out procedures could take place in the next few days,” Brown said.

On Monday, two U.S. destroyers were to depart from South Korea on a mission believed to monitor the North’s rocket launch. The ships are equipped with Aegis radar, a system that enables the vessels to locate, track and shoot down missiles.

South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have warned the North that a launch would trigger U.N. sanctions because it violates a resolution banning Pyongyang from ballistic activity.

North Korea says sanctions would prompt it to quit nuclear disarmament talks. On Sunday, the country’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper reiterated the warning that six-nation nuclear disarmament talks will “completely collapse” if the rocket issue is taken up at the Security Council.


Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.

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