US 'will not shoot down North Korean missile'

The United States has no plans to shoot down a missile North Korea plans to launch in a test Washington sees as a step towards developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said.

North Korea says it will launch a communications satellite between 4 and 8 April, but regional powers believe the launch is really a test for a long-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which is already thought to be on its launch pad. "I would say we're not prepared to do anything about it," Mr Gates told Fox News yesterday when asked if the Pentagon planned to shoot it down. "If we had an aberrant missile, one that looked like it was headed for Hawaii, we might consider it, but I don't think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point," he added.

Mr Gates said the Pentagon does not believe that North Korea has the ability to put a warhead on the missile or reach the US West Coast, but he thinks that is Pyongyang's long-term goal."I don't know anyone at senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile," he said.

North Korea said the rocket should fly over Japan, dropping fuel booster canisters to its east and west. But Mr Gates said Japan might take action if the missile fails and threatens to drop debris over its territory. Japanese television reported that the country's Air Self-Defence Force had deployed units carrying Patriot missiles capable of shooting down a rocket to the northern prefectures of Akita and Iwate.

Also yesterday, the Japanese newspaper Sankei quoted Japanese government sources saying they believed North Korea may fire a short to mid-range missile separately, just after the long-range missile is launched.

Mr Gates said the test, or tests, was "very troubling" and evidence that diplomacy has not worked in curbing North Korea's nuclear intentions. He said he thought economic sanctions would have more success in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table. "If this [missile test] is Kim Jong-il's welcoming present to a new [US] President ... it says a lot about the imperviousness of this regime to any kind of diplomatic overtures," he said.

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