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2009/10/15 10:58 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 76 (October 15, 2009)

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Test-fires Missiles, Raising Stakes before Talks with U.S.

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea test-fired five short-range missiles on Oct. 12 in a move that analysts say appeared to be aimed at raising the stakes ahead of looming bilateral talks with the United States. The North launched two missiles into the East Sea, in the morning and at three in the afternoon, its first such tests in three months, according to South Korean defense officials.

   The launches of KN-02 missiles came amid speculation that a North Korean official is seeking to visit the U.S. in an effort to set up bilateral dialogue between the Cold War enemies. In addition, the tests came just hours after South Korea proposed talks aimed at keeping alive the humanitarian program, recently resumed after a two-year lull, of reuniting families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

   South Korean analysts said the launches are unlikely to threaten dialogue, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-il expressed his regime's willingness to engage in during his recent meetings with top Chinese officials. The missile tests came after an earlier launch that took place on July 4, which the South Korean government lambasted with a formal statement. However, it dismissed the North's latest tests, refusing to issue an official response.

   "We have no desire to react every time North Korea does something," said one high-ranking foreign ministry official in Seoul, requesting anonymity. The ministry accordingly declined to issue an official statement.

   However, Seoul's officials did condemn the test, calling it a violation of all existing related resolutions under the U.N. Security Council, including the latest, Resolution 1874. "We reiterate our calls for North Korea to uphold the resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council," the foreign ministry said.

   Government officials in Seoul concluded that the North's launch of five KN-02 surface-to-surface missiles into the East Sea contravenes U.N. Security Council resolutions 1695, 1718, and 1874, adopted after its missile and nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The resolutions bar North Korea from all activity related to ballistic missiles.

   Defense officials had previously believed the range of KN-02 missiles was 120km, threatening a major western South Korean naval port and a key U.S. military hub south of Seoul.

   The Defense Ministry said it would remain vigilant for possible additional missile tests. It also said it would offer no official response, saying that short-range missiles are not considered a "huge threat." "They gave notice in advance, and we do not usually react to short-range missile tests," Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said.

   Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jung Ok-keun told lawmakers that the missiles are capable of flying farther than the previously estimated 120km. Jung said during a parliamentary inspection of military headquarters that the KN-02 missiles are thought to have a range of 130-160km.

   Experts and officials said the missile tests, though not encouraging, are unlikely to have a significant impact on inter-Korean relations or discussions among the remaining five members of the six-party talks on how to handle the North.

   A source in Seoul said Oct. 13 that North Korea appears to be preparing to test-fire more short-range missiles from the west coast. North Korea has declared a navigation ban on both of its coasts from Oct. 10-20, officials said, adding that the tests could be part of a military drill.

   The U.S. reacted calmly to the North's missile launch, saying such provocation does not change the U.S. goal of denuclearizing North Korea through the six-party talks.

   "It doesn't change our goal," Philip Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said in a daily news briefing. "We are interested in seeing a resumption of the six-party process. We're interested in seeing North Korea recommit to its obligations that it's made in the past few years."

   U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on the launches, said her country will continue to work toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, news reports said. The U.S. has said it will agree to one-on-one dialogue with the communist state if it leads to the resumption of the six-party talks, which also include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

   North Korea, which conducted its second nuclear test in May and launched a long-range rocket in defiance of international warnings in April, is under harsh U.N. sanctions for its behavior. The country earlier quit six-nation talks aimed at its denuclearization in exchange for diplomatic and economic benefits, but it has recently signaled it could reverse course.

   But the test-firings of the North's most advanced short-range missiles also demonstrate that Pyongyang is intent on asserting its rights to missile development, they said.

   "The fact these are short-range missiles -- not mid- or long-range ones -- shows that the North is still very much interested in talks," Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korea Studies said. He added that in addition to such political intentions, the North also seems to want to test its missile capacity. "These may even pass off as part of a routine military drill in the current atmosphere."

   "With the crucial bilateral talks expected to happen any moment now, the North probably felt like it needed to increase its leverage," said Yang. "The missile launches won't reverse the growing mood of dialogue in the region," Yang said.

   Ryu Gil-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea is declaring it is not to be taken lightly just because it has recently taken a concessionary stance. "It's demonstrating its guts," Ryu said, agreeing with the other observers that North Korea will maintain its willingness to engage in both bilateral and multilateral talks over its nuclear programs.

   The latest tests come as the two Koreas appear to be inching toward mending their ties, if only for strategic reasons. Analysts also say the latest missile tests are unlikely to stall the widening dialogue on the Korean Peninsula, which is technically still at war.