North Korea has conducted its second missile test in two weeks. Officials in South Korea and Japan say they are not alarmed as Monday's launch was for a short-range anti-ship missile. But the missile tests are likely to increase tensions in the dispute over North Korea's banned nuclear programs.
Officials in Seoul and Tokyo say North Korea Monday test-launched another cruise missile into its coastal waters in the Sea of Japan. The missile is similar to the one fired on February 24, which is believed to have failed.
The first test-launch came a day before South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was inaugurated in what was widely seen as an attention-getting gesture in the current stand-off over Pyongyang's banned nuclear activities.
Monday's launch did not cause alarm and had been expected. The Pentagon predicted it, after picking up North Korean radio warnings to ships to avoid that part of the Sea of Japan through Tuesday.
However, the launch takes place amid rising worries over the North's nuclear ambitions. These concerns have steadily increased since October, when the United States accused the Stalinist state of having a covert nuclear program violating international treaties. It has since restarted banned nuclear facilities and has asserted its right to test missiles.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told Parliament Monday the cruise missile test was a not a particular worry since its range was too short to reach Japan.
But Mr. Koizumi underscored Tokyo's strong ties with Washington amid the uncertainty over North Korea's provocative moves. He says that if the North test fired a long-range missile over Japan, it would require a strong response.
North Korea fired a multi-stage rocket over Japan in 1998, alarming governments across the region which had underestimated Pyongyang's missile capabilities. The United States and Japan have said that North Korea could soon test a more advanced version of that weapon.
The North defends its recent launches as defensive measures in the face of what it calls U.S. aggression. It has repeatedly accused Washington of plotting an attack on the North, a charge the Bush Administration has denied again and again.
The North is also justifying its interception of an American reconnaissance plane by four fighter jets in international airspace on March 2. North Korean media, monitored in Beijing, said Monday it was a self-defensive act to safeguard its sovereignty.
But the New York Times newspaper reported Saturday that the North was trying to force the aircraft to land in North Korea and take its crew hostage.
Pyongyang has been pushing for direct talks with the United States and a formal non-aggression pact. Washington has rejected those terms and says instead regional powers should be involved in getting North Korea to keep its nuclear non-proliferation commitments.