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Sunday, June 25, 2006


Japan girds for N. Korean brinkmanship

Staff writer

With no immediate resolution in sight to the North Korean missile crisis, Japanese government officials are saying they are getting ready for a long war of nerves.

But one thing is clear. While Tokyo has yet to determine the actual danger level, many officials say the threat will not be an effective bargaining tool like it was eight years ago when North Korea first test-fired a ballistic missile into the Pacific Ocean.

As a result of the 1998 launch, the United States eventually agreed in 1999 to ease economic sanctions against North Korea in return for Pyongyang's promise to freeze launches of long-range ballistic missiles.

"You should look at what North Korea did last time," said a senior Defense Agency official. "But this time, the international situation is different. The same tactics won't work any more."

The media first broke the news of the North's apparent preparation of a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile launch at a base on the northeastern coast earlier this month, and Japanese intelligence officials and Aegis-equipped vessels have been on high alert at least since then, according to government sources.

But because there are conflicting reports on whether the missile has been fueled, the government officials have yet to determine the threat level.

"There has not been a major change in the situation yet," a key government source said Friday evening, indicating Tokyo believed that as of that point liquid fuel had not been pumped into the missile yet.

"You can't predict what (North Korea) will do. That's the big trouble," the official said, hinting Japan will have to remain on alert for awhile.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang has recently started making diplomatic gestures to seek direct negotiations with the United States, fueling speculation it may be trying to use the activity around the launch pad as a bargaining tool.

"North Korea wants negotiations with the U.S. If they decide that bluffing will work to bring the U.S. to the negotiation table, they may not fire the missile," said Shinya Kato, acting director at the editorial department of Radio Press, which monitors and analyzes North Korean radio and TV programs around the clock.

"North Korea's (nuclear weapon) issues have been overshadowed by those of Iran recently. I think Pyongyang is sending a message that (the international community) should not forget North Korea," Kato said.

But the situation surrounding North Korea is different than in 1998. Indeed, the U.S. and Japan this time have already indicated they would immediately consider economic sanctions against Pyongyang should it launch a Taepodong-2, thought to be the first North Korean missile capable of reaching parts of the U.S. mainland.

Since the last missile crisis with Pyongyang, Japan has enacted several laws to enable the government to impose sanctions against North Korea, such as by freezing cash transfers between the two countries and banning ferry services.

And even China, Pyongyang's closest ally, has expressed strong opposition to the launch.

Japanese officials downplay the threat of the possible missile launch, saying the Taepodong-2 appears to be a system targeted at the U.S. and not Japan.

According to the U.S. intelligence sources, North Korea has already deployed 200 Nodong missiles with a range of 1,300 km, enough to cover most of the Japanese archipelago, including Tokyo.

The newer Taepodong-2 is believed to have a range of between 3,500 km and 6,000 km, and an improved version could fly even farther, according to the Defense Agency. The missile would fly over Japan and reach Guam, Hawaii or even parts of the U.S. mainland.

"The target of the missile is the U.S., not Japan," a senior government official in Tokyo said.

Nevertheless, firing the new missile would pose serious problems for Japan because it would likely terminate frameworks of dialogue with North Korea and put the reclusive state in an even tighter corner, a top Defense Agency official said.

"International frameworks such as the six-party talks would be shattered (if the missile is fired). That would be big trouble" for Japan, the official said.

The six-party talks between the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and the two Koreas to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear weapon programs have been stalled by Pyongyang's boycott over U.S. economic sanctions.

Firing a ballistic missile would also violate the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, and Japan will immediately consider economic sanctions, Japanese ministers have warned.

The Pyongyang Declaration, in which Pyongyang pledged not to launch any more ballistic missiles, has been the only agreed road map for normalization of the bilateral relationship.

"Objectively, there wouldn't be a major benefit for North Korea in launching the missile," said Kato of Radio Press.

If North Korea's main purpose is to draw attention of the international community back to itself, it has already achieved 90 percent of its goal, Kato said. "But if they want to achieve the remaining 10 percent, they may fire the missile."

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The Japan Times

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