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Missile tests could make it tougher to resume talks

SHENZHEN, China—North Korea's bungled attempts to show off its missile capabilities may make it harder than ever to pull the isolated nation back into nuclear arms talks.

At least one of the seven ballistic missiles that North Korea fired into the Sea of Japan this week was a Taepodong-2, the best in its arsenal, and it fizzled after takeoff.

"The embarrassment of the missile failure might make them even more troublesome to deal with," said Ron Huisken, an East Asian defense analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Condemnation of the North Korean missile firings rang in from across East Asia, with the notable exception of China. At the same time, assessments were glum about the future of talks with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for aid and diplomatic recognition. The talks broke down last year.

"If North Korea were to come back to the six-party talks after these test-firing blunders, it would be coming back in a greatly weakened position. It won't do that," said Dong-bok Lee, a former South Korean legislator and intelligence adviser.

Several analysts said North Korea aches to be seen as a real threat to the region and is peeved that world focus has shifted toward Iran. Iran is considering a broad package of incentives from the West to suspend its uranium enrichment program in exchange for help in developing a civilian nuclear program.

"The North Koreans are thinking, `We need to remind people that we are an acute danger and that we need to be dealt with some generosity,'" Huisken said.

But the Taepodong-2 disappeared from radar screens barely 40 seconds after its launch, and its failure undercut the purported threat it could deliver as far away as the U.S. West Coast, analysts said.

"Now we know that they almost certainly don't have a long-range missile with any capacity whatsoever to worry about," said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute, a think tank with offices in San Francisco and Melbourne, Australia.

Some analysts said they believed Pyongyang's multiple missile launches were a sign that U.S. sanctions on its global banking transactions are pinching hard.

Washington blacklisted a Macau bank last September that it said was laundering money for North Korea and has sought to strangle its banking transactions around the globe. Short of cash, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was unable to give cadres in his regime traditional gifts to mark the nation's anniversary last October or to honor his or his father's birthdays in February and April, respectively, Lee said.

Kim mistakenly thinks he can pressure Washington to lift the sanctions, Lee said.

"The American sentiment is: You don't make concessions at gunpoint. I don't think the North Koreans are aware of the kind of psychology that prevails in the minds of U.S. citizens," Lee said.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): NKOREA

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