03 July 2009

North Korea fires four short-range missiles

By Lim Chang-Won
News.com.au - Agence France-Presse

* North Korea reportedly fires missiles
* US says they're not worried about attack
* Efforts to reign in rogue state continue

NORTH Korea has reportedly test-fired four short-range missiles, further fuelling tension sparked by its nuclear standoff with the international community, in a move the White House has called the latest in a string of "provocative" acts.

South Korean military officials said the missiles - apparently surface-to-ship ones - were fired into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) between 5.20pm (6.20pm AEST) and 9.20pm (8.20pm AEST) local time. All were launched on Thursday from a base at Sinsang-ri, near the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, a spokesman told the Yonhap news agency.

Other officials told the agency on condition of anonymity they landed about 100km off the coast, where the North has imposed a maritime ban until July 11 for what it calls a military drill.

Spokesmen from the defence ministry confirmed the first three firings but could not be reached for comment on the fourth.

It was the first military action the hardline communist state had taken since the United Nations on June 12 imposed tougher sanctions for its May 25 nuclear test.

South Korea's Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper, quoting an intelligence source, said the North was likely to fire a series of short-range missiles - including Scud-B missiles with a range of 340km - in the coming days. The North may also fire Rodongs, whose 1300km range would likely be shortened to about 400km for the current round of testing.

In the days after its atomic test - the second since 2006 - Pyongyang fired six short-range missiles and renounced the truce brokered on the Korean peninsula after a civil war in 1950 to 1953. In response to the UN resolution tightening curbs on its missile and atomic activities, it vowed to build more nuclear bombs.

World condemnation

US and South Korean officials believe ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, is staging a show of strength to bolster his authority as he tries to put in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that broadly-backed international sanctions imposed on North Korea were starting to take effect and raised hopes that Pyongyang will yield to the pressure.

"The North Koreans said they were going to launch these missiles. I don't think that's surprising that they've launched these missiles. I take the North Koreans at their word that they're going to continue their provocative actions."

Washington has said it is not ruling out the possibility of a long-range missile launch toward Hawaii on or around July 4, the US Independence Day, although the Pentagon has expressed doubts about such a scenario.

A spokesman for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Government is "very concerned" about the missile launches and called on North Korea to immediately desist.

Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso also condemned yesterday's launches, saying: "We have repeatedly warned that such a provocative act is not beneficial for North Korea's national interest."

The commander of US Northern Command, General Victor Renuart, told The Washington Times he did not think Pyongyang's missiles posed any real threat to the US.

"The nation has a very, very credible ballistic-missile defence capability. Our ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California ... give me a capability that if we really are threatened by a long-range ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) that I've got high confidence that I could interdict that flight before it caused huge damage to any US territory," he said.

In Beijing, a US delegation met officials yesterday for talks on giving the UN sanctions more teeth.

The support of China, the North's sole major ally and largest trade partner, is seen as crucial in making the sanctions stick.

Warships tracking suspected weapons

US warships have since mid-June been tracking a North Korean ship suspected of carrying weapons. The Kang Nam 1 was reportedly headed for Burma but US officials said on Tuesday it has now turned back.

China said its top envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue, Wu Dawei, had begun a visit to Russia, the United States, Japan and South Korea.

They are members of a forum which has tried since 2003 to persuade the North to scrap its nuclear programmes in return for energy aid and diplomatic and security benefits.

The North announced it was quitting the talks after the UN censured its long-range rocket launch on April 5.

North and South Korea meanwhile held more talks about the fate of their last major joint business project, the Seoul-funded Kaesong industrial estate just north of the border.

But they failed to narrow differences or set the date for their next meeting, Seoul officials said.