North Korea raises tensions with missile launch
Saturday, 29 March 2008

Seoul, Reuters - North Korea test-fired a battery of short-range missiles on Friday in what analysts saw as a show of the reclusive state's anger at Washington and the new conservative government in Seoul.

The launch comes a day after the North expelled South Korean officials from a joint industrial complex north of the border, after Seoul told its destitute neighbour to clean up its human rights and stop dragging its feet in nuclear disarmament talks if it wants to receive aid to keep its economy afloat.

A South Korean presidential spokesman told a news briefing that the North had fired short-range missiles as a part of a military exercise. Local news reports said the three were ship-to-ship missiles launched into the sea off the west coast.

"We believe the North does not want a deterioration of relations between the South and the North," spokesman Lee Dong-kwan told reporters.

New South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has said he wants to end the free ride given to North Korea under 10 years of left-leaning presidents who gave billions in aid while asking for little in return, seeing it as the price to pay for stability.

Lee's government has said it is ready to invest heavily, provided the North meets conditions such as scrapping its nuclear arms programme or returning the more than 1,000 South Koreans it kidnapped or kept in the country after the 1950-53 Korean War.

Pyongyang was basically sending two messages with the launch, Keio University Korea expert Masao Okonogi said in Tokyo. One was aimed at the United States after talks in Geneva, showing the North's dissatisfaction with Washington's pressure to come clean on uranium enrichment and ties with Syria, he said.

The other was a riposte to the Lee government's shift in stance. "They are warning Seoul not to go back on things agreed between the North and the South," Okonogi said.


North Korea has more than 1,000 missiles, at least 800 of them ballistic, that can hit all of South Korea and most parts of Japan, experts have said. Its launches are often timed to coincide with periods of political tension.

At about the same time as the launch, North Korea's official media fired a rhetorical volley at the United States, blaming it for pushing into deadlock six-country talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear arms plans.

"If the United States continues to delay the resolution of the nuclear problem by insisting on something that doesn't exist, it could have a grave impact on the disablement of the nuclear facility that has been sought so far," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

Pyongyang began disabling its Soviet-era nuclear plant at the end of last year, as its side of a deal with regional powers in return for aid and an end to international isolation.

The process has reached a stage where it would likely take North Korea at least a year to get its Yongbyon nuclear plant running again, according to South Korean officials. U.S. and South Korean officials said most of the work to disable the reactor, a plant that makes nuclear fuel and another that turns spent fuel into arms-grade plutonium is complete, but a few elements have been delayed due to technical reasons.

The agreement calls for the North to make a complete declaration of its nuclear weapons arsenal and answer U.S. suspicions of proliferating nuclear technology and having a clandestine programme to enrich uranium for weapons.

"To make it clear, we have not enriched uranium or cooperated with any other country on nuclear projects. We have not even dreamed about it," the North's spokesman was quoted as saying.

North and South Korea held separate talks on Friday without incident on energy and economic aid the communist state receives in return for complying with the nuclear deal.

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