SEOUL: North Korea fired a cruise missile into the Sea of Japan yesterday, ratcheting up tensions as it tries to force the United States into nuclear negotiations at a time when Washington's eyes are firmly on Iraq.
The United States, which wants to keep the standoff with Pyongyang from hindering its build-up for possible war with Saddam Hussein, had anticipated the launch, the second in as many weeks, and played down its significance.
So had South Korea, after Pyongyang declared a maritime exclusion zone in the Sea of Japan from Saturday to today.
The firing nonetheless caused Seoul's stock markets to dip, adding to fears voiced by a Seoul private-sector think-tank that a prolonged nuclear crisis and any protracted Iraq conflict would slash this year's growth prospects for Asia's fourth-largest economy.
The anti-ship missile North Korea fired into the same waters two weeks earlier was thought to be a version of a Chinese Silkworm missile. Last week, a Pentagon official said Washington was “not overly concerned” about the expected repeat launch.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said: “We understand this was not a ballistic missile and therefore is not considered a direct threat to Japan.”
But he added: “We do not think that this is very favourable in light of the rather unstable situation created by North Korea's nuclear development.”
In 1998, North Korea shocked the world by firing a Taepodong ballistic missile that flew over Japan's main island of Honshu. Pyongyang-affiliated sources in Tokyo and Japanese media reports have predicted another ballistic missile launch amid the crisis.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Sunday the United States would eventually talk with North Korea about the country's nuclear ambitions.
“I think eventually we will be talking to North Korea, but we're not going to simply fall into what I believe is a bad practice of saying the only way you can talk to us is directly when it affects other nations in the region,” Powell said. – Reuters
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