The Bush administration moved to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on North Korea on Monday, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warning that a launch of a ballistic missile would be a “provocative act” that would signal Pyongyang’s rejection of international efforts to reach a compromise on its nuclear weapons program.
The prospect of a long-range missile in the hands of one of the world’s most stridently anti-American regimes spread alarm in Washington. A missile test at this time would also be an embarrassing setback to the Bush administration’s efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran and elsewhere.
President Bush participated in overseas phone calls made by administration officials, and U.S. military officials pointed to their missile defense capabilities without indicating whether there were plans to use them. In Tokyo, officials said Japan would respond “severely,” and South Korean officials early today also delivered a stern warning.
The missile is thought to have a range that could reach U.S. territories in the Pacific such as Guam and possibly parts of Alaska or Hawaii. Analysts believe it is considerably more sophisticated than the Taepodong 1 that North Korea shot into the Pacific Ocean in 1998 before signing a missile-testing moratorium.
As of Monday, satellite intelligence from the launch site in Musudan-ri on North Korea’s east coast suggested that the fueling was on the verge of completion. Once fueling is finished, U.S. sources said, any launch probably would take place within 48 hours, since such missiles can be damaged if left fueled for extended periods. Siphoning off liquid fuel is considered difficult and dangerous.
A South Korean official told reporters in Seoul that all that remained was “the click of a button.”
But another South Korean official questioned whether fueling was completed and said the launch had not passed the point of no return. The official hinted at efforts to get North Korea to change its mind.
“The unofficial communication channel is always open,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
With talks seemingly at a standstill and military options considered imprudent, U.S. officials were left to wonder about North Korea’s next step.
“We’re still waiting. We don’t know what their intentions are,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the uncertainty involved. “We don’t know for sure that they’re going to push the button. But the trend lines have all been in one direction.”
Bush took part in calls to more than a dozen heads of state and government to discuss the consequences of a launch, said White House spokesman Tony Snow. He refused to name leaders contacted by Bush. Snow confirmed that U.S. diplomats have been in contact with North Korean counterparts in New York, where the two countries have on occasion communicated through their United Nations delegations.
After days of silence, South Korea joined Japan and the United States early today and issued a pointed warning.
“The government explained to North Korea the serious repercussions a missile launch would bring and strongly demanded that test-fire plans be scrapped,” Woo Sang-ho, a spokesman for South Korea’s ruling Uri Party, said this morning in Seoul.
The U.S. issued similar warnings in 1998 when it learned that North Korea had begun fueling a Taepodong 1 missile, a multistage rocket that can fly about 1,250 miles, but Pyongyang ignored the admonishments and launched the missile over Japan. The projectile, which if developed sufficiently could be a delivery system for a nuclear weapon, dropped harmlessly into the Pacific after its third stage blew up.
In 1993, North Korea test-fired a modified Scud missile with a range of about 620 miles.
The situation today is more dangerous than in 1998 because North Korea has considerably advanced its nuclear program. The nation pulled out of a nuclear-freeze agreement in 2002 and restarted its reactor and reprocessing plant in Yongbyon.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- toward whom Bush has expressed great personal animosity, although the two have never met -- has made a point of snubbing the administration’s nonproliferation efforts.
Since September, Pyongyang has boycotted six-nation meetings over negotiating a dismantlement of its nuclear program. Measures to punish the North Koreans by shutting down an overseas bank the regime was accused of using to launder proceeds of drug trafficking and counterfeiting have so far failed to bring Pyongyang into compliance.
The CIA believes that North Korea has enough nuclear material for 10 weapons, although it is not clear whether its scientists have the ability to make a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile.
Missile experts in South Korea and the United States believe that the current missile is not carrying a warhead, but a satellite. The technology for launching a satellite or a warhead is virtually the same, but if it launches a satellite, North Korea could claim that it was a purely civilian undertaking.
Preparations for a new launch, which analysts said appeared to be for a larger Taepodong 2 rocket, have been taking place for weeks at the remote Musudan-ri missile base under the scrutiny of U.S., Japanese and South Korean spy satellites.
“I think it is already taken with utmost seriousness by regional states and by the world because it would once again show North Korea determined to deepen its isolation, determined not to take a path that is a path of compromise and a path of peace, but rather instead to once again saber-rattle,” Rice said. “From our point of view, it would be a very serious matter indeed.”
Pentagon officials would not describe the alert status of U.S. forces in response to the North Korean situation. Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, noted that the U.S. “does have a limited missile defense system” in the Pacific, but he would not say whether the U.S. would use the system if a launch occurred.
Although the U.S. military has not been able to shoot down decoy missiles with any regularity, it maintains monitoring and tracking capabilities. Ships with sophisticated Aegis radar systems have been used to track missile launches in the Pacific.
Whitman added that the Pentagon considered any North Korean missile firing a “launch” rather than a “test.”
“ ‘Test’ would imply we know their intentions,” Whitman said.
North Korean missile technology remains shrouded in secrecy. The 1998 launch of the Taepodong 1 caught analysts by surprise, since it was not known that Pyongyang had the capability of developing a multistage missile.
There has been speculation since the 1999 moratorium, reached after the U.S. agreed to lift a number of economic sanctions, that North Korea was attempting to develop the larger Taepodong 2 , which would be able to fly more than twice the distance of the Taepodong 1 and reach important U.S. military facilities in Guam. Depending on whether the missile had two or three stages, it theoretically could reach parts of Alaska as well. Missile experts believe the new missile also has advanced decoying capabilities that would make it difficult to track.
U.S. officials emphasized Monday that they could not be certain which type of rocket was being readied.
North Korea has repeatedly used its nuclear and missile programs as bargaining chips to either win humanitarian aid, get economic sanctions lifted or make progress toward developing civilian nuclear technologies. That track record led some analysts to believe Pyongyang might again be attempting to win concessions from the West.
In South Korea, there were suggestions that there might be last-minute efforts to strike a deal that would probably involve humanitarian aid from China or South Korea.
“The North Koreans might turn cautious and back down from the possible launch, but also could expect compensation,” said Hong Yong-pyo, a North Korea expert with South Korea’s Hanyang University.
The missile launch was originally expected to take place Sunday at 2 p.m., when North Koreans were instructed to raise the national flag and tune in on television and radio stations for a “message to the people.” South Korean officials were surprised when nothing happened. There is a debate among analysts as to whether the delay has been due to technical problems, second thoughts -- or simply bad weather.
Spiegel reported from Washington and Demick from Seoul. Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus in Washington and Maggie Farley at the U.N. also contributed to this report.