BUDAPEST — Senior Bush administration officials said publicly for the first time yesterday that the United States is set to shoot down any North Korean missile launch that threatens the United States.
National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, briefing reporters during President Bush’s brief visit here, said the United States has a missile defense system with “limited operational capability” that could be used to try to shoot down an incoming North Korean missile, but he added that U.S. officials were vigorously pursuing a diplomatic push to head off a test launch by Pyongyang.
“The purpose, of course, of that missile defense system is to defend the territory of the United States from attack,” Mr. Hadley said when asked if the United States would deploy the system should North Korea attack.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington that Mr. Bush has the power to order a shootdown, using one of 11 ground-based interceptors now located in Alaska and California.
“And the president would make a decision with respect to the nature of the launch, whether it was threatening to the territory of the United States or not, and the likely threat that it would pose,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
Mr. Rumsfeld said intelligence reports suggest the North Koreans are “making preparations” for the launch of a new version of its Taepodong missile, efforts that have been under way for several days. “There’s a lot we know, and a lot we don’t know. So, we’ll just have to see.”
The new missile is thought to have the range to hit U.S. territory, prompting an outcry from the United States and key Asian nations who say such a test would violate a moratorium North Korea has observed since 1998.
In Moscow, Russia’s foreign ministry summoned the North Korean ambassador to warn against “undesirable steps” that could increase tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told the Reuters news agency that Tokyo was prepared to take “harsh measures” if the missile test went forward.
North Korea indicated Wednesday it was ready to put the launch on hold while offering dialogue with the United States. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted the North Korean envoy at the United Nations, Han Song-ryol, as saying: “The United States says it is concerned about our missile test launch. Our position is, ‘OK then, let’s talk about it.’”
China, the North’s principal economic and military ally, appealed to both Pyongyang and Washington for restraint.
“We hope that the related parties will resolve this problem through negotiations and dialogue,” Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said in an interview with South Korea’s Maeil Business Newspaper.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with CNN, rejected a suggestion by William Perry, defense secretary under President Clinton, that the United States destroy the North Korean launch site with a pre-emptive cruise missile attack rather than rely on the unproven missile defense shield.
“Obviously, if you’re going to launch strikes at another nation, you’d better be prepared to not just fire one shot,” Mr. Cheney said, joking that he “appreciated” Mr. Perry’s advice. “The fact of the matter is, I think the issue is being addressed appropriately.”
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Mr. Perry was entitled to his opinions as a private citizen, “but the government position is what our senior officials have publicly stated.”
Mr. Hadley stressed repeatedly the United States wants to resolve both the missile test and the Korean nuclear crisis diplomatically. He told reporters the missile defense system existed for research purposes, but that it could be used to try to shoot down a missile in a threatening situation.
The Washington Times reported earlier this week that the Pentagon has put its missile defense system on operational status in response to apparent preparations by the North for a missile test.
The national security adviser said North Korea has the capability to test the missile and said “preparations are very far along” to conduct the test.
In Seoul, South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung told lawmakers, “It is our judgment that a launch is not imminent.”
But he added that U.S. and South Korean forces were prepared to “intercept [a missile] immediately if it was fired toward South Korean territory.”
Bill Gertz and David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.