North Korea's nukes, missiles put region on tenterhooks
The Times of India

March 13, 2003

SEOUL/WASHINGTON: US officials said spy flights will resume near North Korea and the communist state is months away from making nuclear bombs, while a Japanese report said on Thursday the North may soon launch a ballistic missile. With the United States preoccupied with a possible war with Iraq, Pyongyang has used belligerent rhetoric and provocative moves to press for direct talks with Washington to defuse a crisis over two suspected North Korean nuclear arms programmes.

"We seek peace, but we will not beg for peace like a slave in the face of demands to disarm," North Korean state radio said.

US officials said on Wednesday reconnaissance flights in international airspace off North Korea would resume after a delay caused by the interception of one of the unarmed aircraft.

The officials did not say whether the RC-135 spy plane flights had actually resumed but said there were plans to do so. Four North Korean MiG fighter jets buzzed one of the big planes on March 2 about 240 km off North Korea's east coast.

The United States lodged an official protest over the near-miss, which the New York Times reported was an attempt by North Korea to force down the RC-135 and capture its crew.

The move comes as financial market-moving tensions have mounted on the Korean peninsula since US officials said last October that North Korea had admitted to enriching uranium.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, the American point man on North Korea, said on Wednesday Pyongyang could produce highly enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons in months -- not years as experts had previously estimated.

"Months, not years"

That means the reclusive state could get nuclear weapons capability in the short term from both its uranium and plutonium programmes, Kelly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"The enriched uranium issue, which some have assumed is somewhere off in the fog of the distant future, is not," he said.

"It is only probably a matter of months, not years, behind the plutonium" programme, which officials judge could produce bomb-grade plutonium six months after the North restarts a reprocessing plant it is now preparing to revive.

"It is very urgent to find a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue," South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said in a speech to naval academy cadets. "Another war would reduce our prosperity to ashes in a moment."

In a separate reminder of Pyongyang's potential threat to its neighbours, a Japanese newspaper reported on Thursday North Korea may be poised to launch a Rodong medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching nearly all parts of Japan.

The Yomiuri Shimbun daily, quoting government sources, said army vehicles had gathered around several launch sites but it had not been determined if North Korea had begun to fuel the missiles. The paper's sources said it could be weeks before a launch, depending on how far preparations have gone.

"We don't have any specific information to conclude that North Korea is making preparations to launch a ballistic missile," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said. It would be Pyongyang's first ballistic missile launch since 1998.

More provocations expected

North Korea has fired two short-range non-ballistic missiles since late February, apparently as part of training exercises.

Military analysts say North Korea has about 100 Rodong missiles, which have a range of about 1,300 km. It shot off a Rodong in May 1993 that splashed down in the Sea of Japan, and shocked the world in 1998 by firing a longer-range Taepodong missile that flew over Japan.

Kelly said the United States sought multilateral talks involving South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and other countries but noted all of them would just as soon have Washington "take care of it". North Korea wants bilateral talks.

North Korea aims to "spark an incident with the Americans", said Brad Glosserman, director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank. "They see a wedge between Seoul and Washington and they want to exploit it."

The North has made preparations to begin reprocessing nuclear fuel at Yongbyon north of Pyongyang. To start reprocessing would set it on the road to full nuclear weapons production.

The US Air Force in South Korea said it expected the arrival shortly of six F-117A "Stealth" warplanes to take part in annual war games, the first deployment of the radar-avoiding jets to South Korea in a decade.

US B-52 and B-1 bombers landed on the Pacific island of Guam last week as a deterrent to Pyongyang in the event of a US-led war against Iraq. North Korea said the deployment was preparation for a pre-emptive attack.