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Concern Over Possible North Korean Missile Launch Spreads

Officials in France and elsewhere called Tuesday for a strong response by the international community to any possible missile test by North Korea. A senior U.S. official says the possible North Korean missile test is raising alarm in Asia as well.

Speaking on background to reporters in Paris, a senior U.S. State Department official said that Washington believes North Korea could make a test launch of a long-range ballistic missile* on very short notice. But if it does, he said, the United States and the international community would consider such an action very provocative, and a threat to peace and security.

The U.S. official said Japan is also concerned by a possible missile test launch, and would factor North Korea's moves into its security calculations. The best way to ensure a regional arms race does not happen, he said, would be for a strong international response to such a threat. Japan previously said it would take stern actions if North Korea launched a test missile.

That message was echoed Tuesday by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who called for a firm and just international response to any missile test. And during a visit to the French capital, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he hoped North Korea listened to the message coming from the international community, that everyone is worried by its actions.

Experts believe North Korea is preparing to test launch a new missile which could reach the United States. In 1998, it test launched an earlier model which flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. North Korea reportedly rejected Tuesday any outside criticism of its actions.

Valerie Niquet, head of the central Asia department at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, says the international community can put economic and other pressure on impoverished North Korea to give up its program. "The possibility of putting pressure on North Korea is not very high in military terms - nobody would want to envision the risk of war for whatever motive. But economic pressure can be inflicted on North Korea, and it's very effective," he said.

Niquet says it is also essential that Japan be included in any negotiations with North Korea.

Concerns about North Korea may be raised Wednesday, when U.S. and European leaders meet in Vienna.

Officials are also likely to talk about another security threat, Iran, and fears that Tehran may be trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Western Nations have offered Tehran incentives for it to abandon its nuclear enrichment program, which the Iranian government insists is for peaceful purposes. The U.S. official in Paris said Washington was prepared to wait only weeks - not months - for an answer from Tehran.

* Typographical error corrected 22 June 2006