A Level Reply to N. Korea Missiles

Times Staff Writers

After weeks of sternly worded warnings to North Korea, the Bush administration adopted a measured call for diplomacy Wednesday after Pyongyang stunned world leaders by test-launching seven missiles, including one considered capable of reaching American territories in the Pacific.

While the U.S. examined its limited options for punishing North Korea, intelligence officials warned of more missile launches, including another of the long-range Taepodong 2.

President Bush said the missile firings had only deepened North Korea's isolation, and he urged the country's leaders to rejoin stalled international talks on its nuclear program.

"They've isolated themselves further, and that's sad for the people of North Korea," Bush said at the White House. "I am deeply concerned about the plight of the people of North Korea."

North Korea fired six of the missiles early Wednesday and launched a seventh later in the day as members of the U.N. Security Council were preparing for an emergency meeting to decide on actions against the reclusive state.

In its first official statement today, North Korea said, "Our military will continue with missile launch drills in the future as part of efforts to strengthen our self-defense. If anyone intends to dispute or add pressure about this, we will have to take stronger physical actions in other forms."

Japan, with the support of the United States and Britain, introduced a resolution calling for economic sanctions against Pyongyang. But the Security Council ended the day without an agreement, and Russia and China asked for a milder "presidential statement" from the council instead of the legally binding Japanese resolution.

Japan, meanwhile, said it was denying docking permission to a North Korean passenger-cargo ferry, and South Korea said it was making no further plans for humanitarian aid to North Korea after sending a shipment of fertilizer later this week.

But the relatively low-key reaction in Washington, the United Nations and elsewhere reflected the lack of an international consensus and also a determination by the Bush administration not to be drawn into a one-on-one struggle with North Korea.

"The U.S. response is we're working with our allies to figure out how to try to get North Korea back to the table," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. "There are attempts to try to describe this almost in breathless World War II terms. This is not such a situation."

Bush spoke late Wednesday by telephone with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about the need to find a diplomatic solution through six-nation talks on denuclearization. He downplayed the possibility of military force but emphasized "the need for a unified and strong response in the United Nations and elsewhere to North Korea's provocative behavior," said Eryn Witcher, a White House spokeswoman.

Diplomatic sources said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to visit Asia this month and that reviving the six-nation talks would be a key item on her agenda. The talks have been stalled since September.

The subdued response drew some criticism.

"The United States is a paper tiger," said Song Yong-sun, a military expert who serves in South Korea's National Assembly as part of the conservative opposition party. Referring to the North Korean leader, she added, "Kim Jong Il knows very well that Bush isn't going to do anything to punish him."

Meanwhile, there were strong indications in diplomatic and intelligence circles that North Korea was contemplating additional launches.

South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung told a parliamentary committee that more were expected because of the movement of equipment and personnel.

A South Korean official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that North Korea might try to launch another Taepodong because the one launched Wednesday flew only 42 seconds before exploding.

"They are frustrated because the first test was a failure," said the official. He and other experts said there was possibly a second Taepodong launch site besides the one at Musudan-ri missile base where the earlier launch took place.

North Korean fishermen have been warned to stay away from seas near the launch sites off the east coast until July 11, South Korean news agencies reported.

"We're watching this with interest, and keeping on top of it," Snow said when asked about the possibility of additional launches. "But there is certainly the potential there."

U.S. defense officials Wednesday went to great lengths to downplay the military's reaction to the North Korean launches and insisted the American response was now in the hands of diplomats.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that the rudimentary, ground-based missile defense system, which has interceptor missiles based in Alaska and Central California, had been operational during the Korean tests, but said satellite and early-warning radar data quickly showed none of the missiles were a threat to the U.S. or its territories.

A U.S. official acknowledged that the launch helped improve American intelligence on North Korean capabilities but declined to specify what had been discovered in the short life of the Taepodong 2 rocket, a missile Pyongyang is believed to be developing into an intercontinental ballistic missile. The official spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing intelligence information.

Administration officials said the Pentagon was still analyzing information collected during the Taepodong 2's flight, including telemetry data and other information on its trajectory. The other missiles fired -- the last of which was launched at 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, Pacific time -- drew less interest, because they were shorter-range rockets well known to U.S. and Asian analysts.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the swift end of the Taepodong 2 flight did not lessen the Pentagon's concern about its capabilities. The range of the missile is highly disputed, with some saying it can reach only Guam and others fearing it might be able to reach Los Angeles. He added that close U.S. relations with South Korea and Japan meant that the threat posed by Pyongyang was not limited to the missile's ability to reach American territories.

U.S. officials said they had considered but rejected the possibility that the Taepodong 2 had fallen into the sea because of an order by North Koreans to abort the flight, rather than because of failure. Officials were "99% sure" that the destruction was unintended, one official said without elaborating on their reasoning.

Officials acknowledged that the launches of the medium-range Rodong missiles and the short-range Scuds came as a surprise. But they said such launches would not give rise to the same concern, because the missiles are less sophisticated.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill left Wednesday evening to meet with officials in China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

U.S. officials made clear that they are interested in seeing pressure imposed by China and South Korea, which provide the most aid and have the most leverage with Pyongyang.

"We need China to be very, very firm with their neighbors, and ... long-term allies, the North Koreans, on what is acceptable behavior and not acceptable behavior," Hill said in an interview with CNN.

Rice and other U.S. officials declined to spell out what kind of punishments the administration would seek to use, though she insisted that "the international community does have at its disposal a number of tools to make it more difficult for North Korea to engage in this kind of brinksmanship."

Snow said U.S. officials "don't want to punish the North Korean people; they have been punished enough by the regime."

Analysts and former government officials said they expected failure in the effort to work out U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

They predicted that the absence of U.N. sanctions would prompt the Bush administration to turn to efforts to persuade the Chinese and South Koreans to impose bilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.

South Korea has given mixed signals on how firm it will be with North Korea.

Lee Kwon-sei, an official at the Unification Ministry, which deals with the North, said Wednesday that a ship bringing the last bags in a 200,000-ton donation of fertilizer will leave the South Korean port of Pohang on Saturday as previously scheduled, but that no further humanitarian aid was planned this year.

The South Koreans, however, have given no indication that they will suspend tours to the North Korean resort of Mt. Kumgang or work at the new South Korean-run industrial park in Kaesong. Both of the projects are large sources of hard currency for the North Korean regime and thought to be personal favorites of Kim.

Japan has more limited economic leverage on North Korea at this time, and its decision Wednesday to ban for six months the Mangyongbong-92 ferry that travels between North Korea and Japan was considered a minimal measure.

The Japanese resolution condemned North Korea's missile launches for heightening regional tensions and violating international treaties, including Pyongyang's own moratorium on missile launches.

Calling North Korea "the world's leading proliferator of ballistic missiles and related technology," the draft demands that nations withhold all funds, materials and technology that could contribute to North Korea's missile programs. It also urges North Korea to return to the six-nation talks.

With China and Russia saying they favored a milder resolution, the Security Council debate ended in stalemate Wednesday evening and discussions were to be resumed today. A vote may not take place until Friday.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his nation shared the concern of other Security Council members, but he believed that a resolution was not necessary.

Churkin said Russia would join the rest of the council "in making it clear to North Korea that this is not the way to go about it, this has been a deplorable development, and we should work toward a diplomatic solution."

China joined Russia in pushing for a nonbinding statement, similar to the one the council passed in 1998 simply expressing "regret" after North Korea fired an earlier version of its Taepodong over northern Japan.

"If all council members feel that some appropriate action is needed by the council, we will see," said Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya on Wednesday morning. "But certainly what happened was a regret."

Chinese officials may be reluctant to move publicly against the North Korean regime, but they and other governments might be willing to move quietly, analysts said.

"The spotlight is going to be on what China and South Korea can do, which is exactly what those countries didn't want," said Derek Mitchell, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He said U.S. diplomats will argue that "you said this wouldn't be tolerated. If you don't show some toughness now, we'll lose all leverage" over North Korea.

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Richter reported from Washington and Demick from Seoul. Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Peter Wallsten in Washington and Maggie Farley at the U.N. contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The flurry of missiles launched by North Korea landed in the Sea of Japan. The longe-range Taepodong 2, an earlier version of which the North Koreans tested in 1998, apparently failed to launch properly and did not travel much farther than the shorter-range missiles also fired. The range of the missile is highly disputed.

(END TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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