| A US soldier during a military exercise near the demilitarised zone in Paju, 50 km north of Seoul. (Reuters)
Seoul, April 1 (Reuters): Conflicting reports about a North Korean short-range missile test today jangled north Asian nerves already on edge over suspicions Pyongyang might seek to grab attention now the US-led war in Iraq is under way.
Initially, Japanese and US officials said North Korea had fired a surface-to-ship missile without warning into the Yellow Sea between the Korean peninsula and China. A South Korean intelligence source also confirmed the test.
But officials in Seoul then contradicted the reports about South Korea’s Communist neighbour, which says it believes it will be the next target after the US war in Iraq is over.
“Following our initial investigation, we could not find evidence that North Korea fired a missile,” a South Korean defence ministry official said.
The director-general of Japan’s defence agency, Shoei Yamanaka, later retracted an earlier Japanese announcement, saying Tokyo was still trying to confirm the information.
No one was letting on why the story changed. But a military source in Japan said in February after one of two confirmed launches there had been 10 unannounced tests since September. It was not clear why the US, South Korean or Japanese authorities would want to avoid announcing such tests.
Today’s initial reports moved the financial markets in Japan and South Korea slightly. Traders are sensitive to North Korea, given its standoff with the US over its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions and its rich rhetoric against Japan, the US and the South Korean military.
Yamanaka did not deny or confirm the North fired the missile today — less than a week after Japan sent two spy satellites into orbit to give Tokyo its first independent opportunity to scrutinise North Korea from space.
Pyongyang denounced that launch as a “hostile act” that could set off a regional arms race. It kept up its outspoken rhetoric against Japan today, saying Tokyo would pay dearly if it kept helping the US with spy flights near North Korea.
North Korea accused the US military today of flying more than 220 spy flights over the peninsula last month and of conducting military exercises to prepare for an attack.
“The aerial espionage and war exercises go to clearly prove that the US is going to invade the DPRK at the end of the Iraqi war,” the North’s KCNA news agency said. DPRK is the acronym for the state’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Washington says it seeks a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis but has not ruled out a military option. There have been media reports North Korea might be preparing for a ballistic missile test that would break deals it reached with Washington and Tokyo. Ballistic missiles could reach Japan.
The US military, which has 37,000 troops in South Korea, said it would keep some F-117 “Stealth” fighters in South Korea for more training and to enhance deterrence.
The radar-eluding aircraft were deployed on the peninsula this year for annual military exercises for the first time in a decade, prompting Pyongyang to say it was all part of a prelude to a pre-emptive strike on its Yongbyon nuclear complex.
The north recently announced reactivation of the plant, saying this was to produce electricity for its stricken economy. Washington says the plant is too small for that and is more likely to be used to produce material for atomic weapons.