Anger as North Korea sends a missile flying over Japan

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NORTH KOREA, the last surviving Stalinist dictatorship, proved once again that the Cold War is not quite over when it fired a long-range ballistic missile over the Japanese mainland yesterday, sendingalarm throughout Asia.

The rocket was first spotted by an American Orion spy plane and last night Russian and Japanese ships were steaming towards the spot in the Sea of Japan, south-east of Vladivostok, where the first stage of the missile is believed to have landed. A second stage was said to have flown over Japan to land in the Pacific Ocean - proof that the world's most unpredictable country now has long-range missiles to go with its suspected nuclear capacity.

Diplomats insisted last night that the firing of the missile was a test, but given suspicions that North Korea may possess one or more nuclear warheads, its successful launch will increase tension in the region. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said she was alarmed. "This is something that we will be raising with the North Koreans," she said.

According to defence officials in South Korea, the weapon was the new Taepo Dong I, with a range of 1,240 miles, capable of striking Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul.

The Japanese government's chief spokesman, Hiromu Nonaka, said the test "will have a serious impact on the situation in north-east Asia".

North Korea's missile programme has long been a cause of concern, not only for the threat it poses to neighbouring countries but also because of the regime's sales of weapon systems to other countries. Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria are all believed to have been buyers. Recently, sales have plummeted. Among the reasons for yesterday's test may have been the desire to advertise one of its biggest export earners.

But the timing suggests political motives. Next week,North Korea's acting leader, Kim Jong Il, is expected finally to be elected president. "One interpretation is that this missile is a gift, a demonstration of strength presented to the new leader on his accession," a foreign diplomat in Seoul said.