North Korea May Have Fired Missile

Times Staff Writers

In a step that heightened concerns about its nuclear ambitions, North Korea apparently launched a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan on Sunday, U.S. and South Korean officials said.

South Korean intelligence officials were quoted today by the Yonhap news agency as saying they believed that a surface-to-ship guided missile with a range of 100 miles was fired from the North Korean city of Hamhung, about 100 miles northeast of the communist nation’s capital, Pyongyang.

The intelligence officials said that the launch might be part of routine military exercises and that it did not appear to violate a 1999 moratorium on long-range missile testing.


White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., speaking on several Sunday news shows, said the U.S. was not surprised by the launch because North Korea had conducted similar tests in the past. However, he expressed concern the North Koreans might be seeking to arm their missiles with nuclear weapons. “They’re looking to kind of be bullies in the world,” Card told “Fox News Sunday.” “And they’re causing others to stand up and take notice.”

North Korea conducted similar short-range missile tests in 2003 during a period of heightened tension with the U.S. A military expert in Seoul said the missile fired Sunday was most probably the same type of Chinese Silkworm missile launched previously.

The latest firing again comes amid deteriorating U.S.-North Korean relations.

Pyongyang on Saturday lashed out at President Bush, calling him a “philistine,” a “hooligan” and a “cowboy.” The remarks were an apparent response to Bush’s news conference Thursday in which he characterized North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a “tyrant” and “dangerous person.”

Multinational talks seeking a negotiated dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program are at a standstill. American officials have been warning that Pyongyang might be getting ready to stage an underground nuclear test.

During congressional testimony last week, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, asserted that the U.S. believed that North Korea could make a nuclear warhead and place it on a missile that could reach the United States, though the Pentagon later backpedaled from his remarks, saying it was not sure.

In 1998, North Korea stunned the world by test-firing a multi-stage ballistic missile over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean. The following year, responding to diplomatic pressure, Pyongyang agreed to a moratorium on long-range testing. In recent months, however, the North has threatened to resume testing.

The apparent missile launch came on the eve of a conference at the United Nations on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea and Iran are expected to be high on the agenda.

North Korea experts said that Sunday’s apparent firing had little military significance, but was more likely a political statement expressing Pyongyang’s displeasure with the United States.

“It’s part of the ‘Hey, don’t forget about me’ approach that North Korea is known for,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, an Asia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He said the missile test was not surprising. “It fits within past behavior parameters,” he said.

Balbina Hwang, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, agreed. “Normal countries don’t negotiate by raising the level of tension, but that’s how North Korea tries to get what it wants,” she said. “They’ve been doing it for 50 years and it’s always been successful.”

The White House continued its verbal attack on North Korea over the weekend. On CNN’s “Late Edition,” Card said Kim’s “people are living in abject poverty. He’s not the kind of leader that instills confidence from his own people, and he’s not really a comfortable leader with the rest of the world.”

Card said the Bush administration would work with the other nations in the six-party disarmament talks -- Japan, South Korea, Russia and China -- “to demonstrate that North Korea’s actions are inappropriate. We don’t want them to have any nuclear weapons.”

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told “Late Edition” that the report of the missile test was “additional, very discouraging evidence that this administration’s policy toward North Korea is failing.”

Henry D. Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former Pentagon official under President George H. W. Bush, described North Korea’s missile launch as “old news,” but noted that the White House’s new attacks on Kim might be pointing to an important policy shift. “The president’s body language is suggesting that he thinks Kim has to go,” he said. “Before, the administration seemed to think that we could talk our way out of our problems with North Korea.”


Silverstein reported from Washington and Demick from Seoul.