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North Korea Flexes Missile Muscle To Grab US Attention

File photo: A North Korean Taepodong missile.
by P. Parameswaran
Washington (AFP) Jun 13, 2006
North Korea's preparations for possible long-range missile tests - its first in nearly a decade - may be an attempt to grab the attention of a US government distracted by its nuclear row with Iran, experts said Monday.

There are "enough indications" to suggest that the Stalinist state is getting ready to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, eight years after sending a missile over northern Japan, a senior US official was quoted saying in a weekend news report.

Current test preparations are reportedly far more advanced than on previous occasions when North Korea appeared to be gearing up for a missile launch.

Pyongyang, which claims to have nuclear bombs, has frequently used missile tests and other provocative military activity to spur either diplomatic efforts or to shake up what they view as unfavourable diplomatic situations.

But Pyongyang's latest demonstration of a planned long range missile test, against the backdrop of stalled nuclear talks, is seen by some analysts as a plea for US attention.

"It is very likely that North Korea believes that with Iran being offered a very reasonable package of incentives to abandon their nuclear program, they too would like to ensure that they are getting the appropriate attention and incentives from the United States," said Jon Wolfsthal, a weapons expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

North Korea's missile test preparations pre-date a US offer this month to join in the negotiations between Iran and the European nations to end a nuclear standoff with the Islamic republic.

But Wolfsthal said the hardline communist state's stepped up missile activity could be an indication that Pyongyang "is very frustrated with its inability to get political and economic benefits from its nuclear program."

The United States had been involved with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in talks with North Korea to disband the reclusive state's nuclear arms in return for security and diplomatic guarantees and critical energy aid.

Six-party talks climaxed in September 2005, with North Korea agreeing in principle to end its atomic weapons program.

But negotiations have collapsed since November, after the United States imposed financial sanctions on Pyongyang for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering activities.

During the impasse, Washington has been actively involved in diplomacy to defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis.

It has offered to directly talk to the Iranians and provide various incentives to encourage Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that could lead to making nuclear bombs.

"The North Koreans do not like to be ignored and they are famous for staging provocative actions to remind the United States that they are still potentially dangerous," noted Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear expert at the Center for American Progress.

He said that increased activity at a North Korean missile launch site, being monitored by US satellites, may be aimed more at "stimulating the six-party negotiating process than actually developing a capability that could actually threaten the United States."

Indications are that the North Koreans are itching for a nuclear deal but are frustrated by the on-again, off-again negotiating tactics of the United States.

US authorities have not directly linked North Korea's latest missile activity to their nearly four-year nuclear standoff.

"Our concerns about missile activities in North Korea are longstanding," State Department spokeswoman Amanda Rogers Harper said, stressing that they "pose a threat to the region and the world."

Recently, the administration of President George W. Bush signalled it was prepared to consider opening a parallel track of negotiations with North Korea on a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

Some believe the move could result in a breakthrough to get talks moving again.

"But we haven't seen any results of the reported action yet, and the North Koreans may be getting impatient and are sort of puffing themselves up," Cirincione said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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New Delhi (AFP) Jun 12, 2006
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