Monday, May 2, 2005

SEOUL — North Korea apparently test-fired a missile into the East Sea/Sea of Japan yesterday, raising new fears about Pyongyang’s nuclear intentions just days after a U.S. intelligence official said it had the ability in theory to arm a missile with a nuclear warhead.

News of the test launch first appeared in Japanese press reports, which said U.S. military officials had told the Japanese and South Korean governments that the missile flew about 65 miles off the North Korean coast. Later, the White House chief of staff confirmed the incident in an interview on CNN’s “Late Edition” with Wolf Blitzer.

“It appears that there was a test of a short-range missile by the North Koreans and it landed in the Sea of Japan. We’re not surprised by this. The North Koreans have tested their missiles before. They’ve had some failures,” Andrew H. Card Jr. told the cable network.

On Thursday, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the U.S. Senate that the North Koreans knew how to arm a missile with a nuclear weapon, a potentially significant advance for the communist state.

He did not say whether he was talking about a short-range or long-range missile; the latter is thought capable of hitting western parts of the United States.

Two defense officials later said U.S. intelligence analysts think North Korea is several years away from being able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach the United States.

Yesterday’s test-firing occurred on the eve of a major gathering at the United Nations to review global progress on curbing nuclear proliferation. North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

The United States, however, is expected to seek a consensus at the U.N. session for tough action against the North Koreans, as well as the Iranians. Both are accused by Washington of having nuclear weapons or ambitions to build them.

North Korea has test-fired short-range missiles many times. In 2003, it test-fired short-range land-to-ship missiles at least three times during a period of heightened tension over its nuclear-weapons program.

Yesterday’s test, however, occurred at an especially worrisome time as the North appeared to have resumed efforts to move forward with its nuclear-weapons program. South Korean officials said last month that Pyongyang recently had shut down a nuclear reactor, possibly to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea shocked the region in 1998 by test-firing a Taepo-Dong 1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The North said that was an attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

U.S. and South Korean officials are more concerned about a possible North Korean test of a Taepo-Dong 2 missile, which analysts think is capable of reaching parts of the western United States, though there are widespread doubts about its reach and accuracy.

Washington says North Korea is a top global exporter of missile parts and technology.

The Japanese Cabinet in February approved legislation that would allow the defense chief to order the military to shoot down incoming missiles.

Six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions have been stalled since June.

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