North Korea offers to halt missile launch

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The Independent US

In a new bout of brinkmanship with Washington, North Korea has suggested it would halt its apparent plans to test-fire a long-range missile if the US agreed to direct talks with the reclusive Communist regime.

This latest gambit from Pyongyang comes amid escalating tensions in the region, as a former South Korean president dropped plans for a rare visit to the North, and Pentagon officials hinted that if a missile was launched, the US might try to shoot it down. Speaking at the US-European Union summit in Vienna yesterday, President George Bush condemned the idea of "non-transparent regimes, who have announced they have nuclear warheads, firing missiles," adding that "this is not the way you conduct business in the world". European leaders also appealed to the North to cancel any launch, while China urged all parties not to destabilise the region.

But outwardly at least, Pyongyang shows no signs of acceding to the pressure, arguing that its self-imposed moratorium since 1999 on testing long-range missiles no longer applied because the North was not in direct talks with the US.

North Korea was a sovereign state that had the right to test missiles, and if the US had objections, "then we should resolve the issue through negotiations", Han Sol Ryol, the deputy head of the country's mission to the United Nations, said.

The missile in question is the Taepodong-II, with a range of up to 3,700 miles and theoretically capable of hitting Alaska and parts of the US west coast. Satellite images have indicated that a missile has been fuelled for launching, but "the intelligence is not conclusive at this point", Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's national security adviser, told reporters as the President was travelling to Europe.

No one here is suggesting that a launch would be anything other than a test. But an earlier such exercise in 1998, when the North fired a missile over northern Japan into the Pacific, sent political and military shock-waves through the region.

Some US officials have warned that if a Taepodong-II was fired, Washington would conduct its own test in retaliation - of the $11bn anti-missile defence system currently being deployed in Alaska and California.

But most analysts consider this unlikely, not least because a failed interception would cast further doubts on a programme that has already suffered several setbacks.

More likely are political and economic sanctions, especially from South Korea. In Seoul, former president Kim Dae-Jung announced that he had cancelled a planned visit to the North next week, a rare high-level contact between the two countries. A South Korean government spokesman also warned that a missile test would endanger a requested 350,000 tons of rice shipments requested by the North, but to which Seoul has not agreed.

The new diplomatic collision comes as six-nation talks aimed at securing an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons programme remained stalled. Pyongyang is demanding a bilateral security pact with the US first. Washington says it will only agree such a deal after the North has agreed to abandon its nuclear ambitions.