Seoul/Washington, March 13 (Reuters): The US air force was preparing to resume spy flights today off the coast of North Korea, while a Japanese report said the North may soon testfire a missile that could reach nearly all of Japan.
Japan’s defence agency said it had sent a destroyer equipped with an Aegis missiledetection system to the Sea of Japan but described it as part of regular patrols.
Japan’s daily Yomiuri Shimbun said North Korea, which has testfired two shortrange missiles since late February, could be weeks away from launching a mediumrange missile — its first since August 1998.
The latest military moves follow testimony to Congress by the top US envoy on North Korea that the Communist state could be months away from being able to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
With the US preoccupied with a possible war with Iraq, Pyongyang has used belligerent rhetoric and provocative moves to press for direct talks with Washington to defuse a crisis over North Korea’s suspected nuclear arms programmes.
“We seek peace, but we will not beg for peace like a slave in the face of demands to disarm,” North Korean state radio said.
US officials said yesterday that reconnaissance flights in international airspace off North Korea would resume after a delay caused by the interception of one of the unarmed aircraft by North Korean fighters. The officials did not say whether the RC-135 spy plane flights had actually resumed or if US fighters would accompany them.
Four North Korean MiG fighters buzzed one of the big planes on March 2 about 240 km off North Korea’s east coast.
The US lodged an official protest over the nearmiss, which the New York Times reported was an attempt by North Korea to force down the RC-135 and capture its crew.
Tension has mounted on the Korean peninsula since US officials said in October North Korea had admitted to enriching uranium. Washington believes North Korea already has one or two atomic bombs in its arsenal.
Assistant secretary of state James Kelly, the American point man on North Korea, said yesterday Pyongyang could produce highly enriched uranium to make a number of nuclear weapons in months — not years as experts had previously estimated.
That means North Korea could get nuclear weapons capability in the short term from both its enriched uranium and plutonium programmes, Kelly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The enriched uranium issue, which some have assumed is somewhere off in the fog of the distant future, is not,” he said. He said it was “probably a matter of months, not years, behind the plutonium” programme. US officials say North Korea could produce bombgrade plutonium six months after restarting a reprocessing plant it is now preparing to revive.