SEOUL, South Korea — Twice in a little more than a decade, North Korea has fired a long-range missile into space. Both times, the launches appeared to fizzle. Now North Korea is threatening a new launch. This time, the missile may be more powerful, even capable of hitting U.S. territory.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the threat of such a launch Friday with South Korea Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan, declaring that a missile test would violate U.N. sanctions that require it "to suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program."
Clinton called on Pyongyang to halt "provocative and unhelpful" statements and actions that would harm disarmament talks on its nuclear program and "aggravate tensions in the region."
Separately, Clinton announced that she had appointed Stephen Bosworth, a former ambassador to South Korea, as Washington's special envoy on North Korea, and reiterated concern that a succession struggle might be taking place in Pyongyang following an apparent stroke that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may have suffered last year.
"When you are talking about future dealings with a government that doesn't have any clear succession — they don't have a president, they don't have a prime minister — that is something you have to think about," said Clinton, who is on the third stop of a four-nation Asian tour. "The open press is filled with such conversations. This is not some kind of classified matter."
North Korea hasn't denied news reports that it's assembling telemetry equipment at its missile launch site in Musudan-ri on the east coast and is about to test the latest version of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile, saying only that it may fire a satellite into space.
Any test launch would present difficult choices for President Barack Obama over whether to shoot an intercontinental ballistic missile out of the sky, analysts said.
"If the North Koreans claim it's a satellite launch, and the U.S. shoots down the carrier, that would be a problem," said Scott Snyder, the director of the Asia Foundation's Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, noting that sovereign nations have the right to launch satellites.
Some hard-liners in South Korea charge that the satellite claim is a fig leaf to defuse international pressure over the testing of a long-range missile that probably would be a potential delivery system for a nuclear weapon. North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006. Talks with the United States and four other countries over Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament have stalled since December.
Pyongyang is "trying to get away with the launch by loading a satellite on the Taepodong-2 that only sends off Morse code signals, attempting to disguise the move as a satellite launch test," the JoongAng Daily newspaper in Seoul said Thursday.
The newspaper said that the Pentagon planned to shoot down any North Korean missile launch with a Standard Missile-3 interceptor, carried on the Aegis missile cruiser of the U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan.
Snyder said, however, that attempting to intercept a North Korean missile could have consequences. What if the U.S. military fires at the Taepodong-2 and fails to destroy it?
"It poses significant reputational risks," he said.
The first time that North Korea launched a two-stage Taepodong-1 missile was in August 1998. The missile fell into the Sea of Japan. North Korea offered no warning to its neighbors, rattling foreign capitals and commercial aviation. Pyongyang later said that the missile launch placed a satellite into orbit, although no satellite in sustained orbit ever was detected.
The second launch occurred in 2006, fizzling about 40 seconds later.
On Monday, the 67th birthday of North Korea's leader, the official Korean Central News Agency railed against South Korean news reports of a pending missile launch.
"It is a naked provocation to make outlandish remarks that we are preparing to fire a long-range missile," the North Korean news agency said. "It is a vicious trick to block even our peaceful scientific-research activities."
It added: "It will be known soon what will be launched."
Any launch would reverberate far beyond East Asia. Earlier this month, Iran launched a Safir-2 rocket that was carrying a satellite. Iran and North Korea are known to cooperate on missile development. Iranian observers are thought to have been present for the last Taepodong-2 launch.
Taepodong-2 missiles have never reached their potential, although technically they can reach Alaska and carry payloads of up to 1,100 pounds, defense experts say. North Korea isn't thought to have miniaturized a nuclear weapon to fit on such a small warhead.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has brushed off the threat that the Taepodong-2 now presents to the continental United States.
"Since the first time that they launched the missile (in 2006), it flew for a few minutes before crashing. The range of the Taepodong-2 remains to be seen. So far, it's very short," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference Feb. 10.
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