SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korea interrupted moves toward dialogue on its nuclear program Monday by reportedly test-firing five short-range missiles off its east coast.
A South Korean official, briefing the Korean media, said two short-range KN-02 missiles were fired in the morning and three more in the afternoon. The missiles, with a range of 75 miles, were shot from mobile launch pads near where North Korea fired a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5.
The timing of the tests, the North’s first in three months, is particularly significant since North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, has shown clear interest in opening two-way dialogue with the US — and has even indicated his willingness to enter six-party talks that he had previously vowed to spurn. The tests are an effort to show North Korea’s toughness — and at the same time to draw the US into bilateral talks, which the US has said it would agree to only if North Korea first agreed to six-party talks. Koh Yu Hwan, a professor at Dongguk University here, was quoted by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, as saying the tests help North Korea “stake out its position ahead of its talks with the outside world.” Ryoo Kihl Jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said North Korea was “demonstrating its guts.”
Clinton plays down missile tests
The US response to Monday’s tests, however, suggested that North Korea may have to do more to make an impression. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Belfast, said the US position was “unaffected by the behavior of North Korea” and the US goal “remains the same” — to get the North to return to six-party talks.
The US has still not confirmed plans for the US envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, to go to Pyongyang in pursuit of six-party talks. Nor has the US approved a visit to Washington by a North Korean official despite “speculation in Seoul,” said Yonhap, that he wants to go there “to set up bilateral dialogue.”
China’s visit to Pyongyang
The missiles were launched just two days after talks in Beijing in which China’s Premier Wen Jiabao assured South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak and Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, that Mr. Kim would like to improve relations with South Korea and Japan as well as the US.
Mr. Wen based that assessment on his three-day visit to Pyongyang that began last week when Kim Jong-il personally greeted him at the airport. Kim, before seeing Wen off in another airport ceremony, said he was ready to authorize North Korea’s return to multilateral talks depending on “the outcome” of dialogue with the US.
China and North Korea also signed deals on trade and investment during Wen’s visit — all vital to stabilizing the North’s deteriorating economy.
North Korea, moreover, signaled the possibility of more tests by delineating no-sail zones off both its east and west coasts. South Korea’s defense ministry said the no-sail zones had gone into effect on Saturday while Wen was meeting the leaders of South Korea and Japan, and would last until October 20.
By warning ships to stay away, North Korea raised the possibility of tests of medium-range missiles — and possibly of another long-range missile. North Korea’s test-firing of missiles in early July and again on Monday appeared as a sign of defiance of stringent sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in June in the wake of the North’s underground nuclear test on May 25.