| A South Korean policeman guards missile models at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul on Monday. (Reuters)
Seoul, March 10 (Reuters): North Korea fired a cruise missile into the Sea of Japan today, ratcheting up tensions as it tries to force the US into nuclear negotiations at a time when Washington’s eyes are firmly on Iraq.
The US, which wants to keep the standoff with Pyongyang from hindering its buildup for possible war with Saddam Hussein, had anticipated the launch, the second in as many weeks, and played down its significance.
So had South Korea, after Pyongyang declared a maritime exclusion zone in the Sea of Japan from March 8 to 11.
The firing nonetheless caused Seoul’s stock markets to dip and helped push the won currency to a four-month low, adding to fears voiced by a Seoul private-sector think-tank that a prolonged nuclear crisis and any protracted Iraq conflict would slash 2003 growth prospects for Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
A Seoul defence ministry spokesman said the missile was fired at about 0300 GMT and appeared to be the same type as the North test-fired on February 24. “We are still trying to find out exactly what type of missile it was,” he added. Yonhap news agency quoted a senior official as saying the missile flew about 110 km.
The anti-ship missile North Korea fired into the same waters two weeks earlier was thought to be a version of a Chinese Silkworm missile. Last week, a Pentagon official said Washington was “not overly concerned” about the expected repeat launch. South Korea called for talks.
“We regret any kind of action by North Korea to aggravate the situation that could threaten peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula,” said Lee Jihyun, foreign media spokeswoman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House. “We would like North Korea to engage in dialogue and resolve the nuclear issue,” she said.
Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said a non-ballistic missile was “not considered a direct threat to Japan”.
But he added: “We do not think that this is very favourable in light of the rather unstable situation created by North Korea’s nuclear development.”
In 1998, North Korea shocked the world by firing a Taepodong ballistic missile that flew over Japan’s main island of Honshu. Pyongyang-affiliated sources in Tokyo and Japanese media reports have predicted another ballistic missile launch amid the crisis.
While the US and its allies remained calm, North Korea’s state media blasted US.
“(The US) plan for a forestalling nuclear attack on the North is in the stage of practice beyond the stage of argument. What remains is when and how to ignite a nuclear war,” said the Rodong Sinmun daily, the North’s ruling party mouthpiece.
Seoul’s Korea Economic Research Institute (KERI) said 2003 growth could tumble to 1.4 per cent compared with an estimated 6.2 per cent in 2002 in the worst case if a war against Iraq is prolonged and the North Korean nuclear crisis is not resolved.
Secretary of state Colin Powell said yesterday the US would eventually hold talks with the North Korea about the country’s nuclear ambitions, but reiterated the US view that others in Asia should help bring about an end to the standoff.
“I think eventually we will be talking to North Korea, but we’re not going to simply fall into what I believe is a bad practice of saying the only way you can talk to us is directly when it affects other nations in the region,” Powell said.
Powell told the CNN Late Edition television show a 1994 deal for North Korea to halt its nuclear programme had been the product of direct talks with the North that Pyongyang later set aside in pursuit of other ways to develop nuclear weapons. “This time, we want a better solution that involves all the countries in the region,” he said.