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North Korea Defends Missile Tests as 'Sovereign Right'

  • Kurt Achin

A North Korean official has defended his country's right to launch missiles, hours after Pyongyang fired at least six of them, including one long-range Taepodong-2. Leaders in the United States and around Asia say the launches will increase North Korea's isolation, as the United Nations Security Council prepares to hold an emergency meeting.

Ri Pyung Dok, a policy researcher at North Korea's Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, told Japanese journalists that his country is well within its rights to launch missiles. He said missile tests are a matter of national sovereignty, and no nation has the right to question whether they are right or wrong.

Ri’s comments, which were broadcast in South Korea, came several hours after Pyongyang fired at least six missiles, sparking condemnation from several countries.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by telephone soon after the launches. He said the two agree the launches are a threat to peace, and they will closely coordinate on a response.

Another South Korean official said the launches would worsen North Korea's isolation and hurt its relationship with Seoul.

The North Korean tests commenced at 3:30 in the morning Wednesday. Most were short-range missiles that fell into the Sea of Japan. Only one was a long-range Taepodong-2, which theoretically could hit the United States. But it failed less than a minute into the launch.

On Wednesday, Japan barred from its ports a North Korean ferry that carries cash, food and gifts from ethnic Koreans in Japan to the impoverished communist state. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said more punitive action may be on the way. Abe called Wednesday's launches by Pyongyang a clear offense that threatens Japan's air and maritime traffic. He said North Korea should be punished, including some form of action by the United Nations.

Abe also said North Korea should return to six-nation discussions on implementing a pledge it made to stop developing nuclear weapons. Japan, the United States, South Korea, Russia and China say they are ready to provide financial and diplomatic benefits to the North if it ends its nuclear programs.

The United Nations Security Council planned to meet Wednesday to discuss the North Korean launch.

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, made it clear Wednesday that even now, the door is open for Pyongyang to negotiate. "As we've said before, there will be consequences for these latest missile tests - but it doesn't have to be this way,” said Vershbow. “There is a clear path for North Korea to join the international community -rather than isolate itself from the international community. And that path is the six-party talks."

Peter Beck, the Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group research organization, said the North Korean missile launches are a gamble. He said Pyongyang is betting that South Korea and the United States will not be able to coordinate their North Korea policies. "Unconditional engagement here in Seoul hasn't worked,” said Beck, “and the 'we want to get tough, but we're not quite sure how, or we really don't have as many sticks as we'd like' approach [from] Washington hasn't worked either. And the bottom line is, until Seoul and Washington are on the same page, they're not going to find an effective strategy for dealing with the North."

For six years, South Korea has tried to engage North Korea and has given it billions of dollars worth of aid and economic support. But last week, one senior official in Seoul warned that a long-range missile test would make that aid and other cooperative ventures with North more difficult.

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