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Agence France Presse June 21, 2006

N Korea offers US talks to defuse missile crisis

By Park Chan-Kyong

North Korea on Wednesday offered the United States talks on its missile launch plans, indicating it might put off a flight test that has raised tension and drawn sharp international warnings.

The number two diplomat at North Korea's United Nations mission was quoted saying the secretive state was open to talks with Washington, where there were reports that the US missile defence shield had been activated in case of a launch.

"The United States says it is concerned about our missile test launch," Han Song-Ryol told South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "Our position is, 'Okay then, let's talk about it.'"

But he underlined the North's position that it had every right to develop, deploy and test-fire missiles.

"It is not right for others to tell us what to do about our sovereign rights," said Han, whose country last year announced it had developed an atomic bomb.

North Korea test-fired a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean in 1998, and reports that it was preparing another test have drawn warnings of a tough response from Japan and the United States.

Former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, who made engagement with the estranged North a cornerstone of his policy while in office, cancelled a trip to Pyongyang next week.

"I understand the trip is technically impossible right now because of the situation over the missle," said Jeong Se-Hyun, a former unification minister who was to accompany Kim.

A series of reports have said North Korea is preparing to test-fire a Taepodong-2 missile with a range of up to 6 700km, far enough to hit targets in Alaska and possibly Hawaii.

Indications that the North had been fuelling a missile -- a process that experts say is dangerous and difficult to reverse -- have caused concern.

Japan and South Korea agreed their nations would have to cooperate to prevent a missile launch, the Japanese foreign ministry said in a statement.

"If the missile were to be launched, it would threaten the regional security. It is important that countries concerned would cooperate in urging North Korea to use its restraint," the ministry said.

Citing US officials, the Washington Times newspaper meanwhile reported that a US missile defence system had been activated in the past two weeks.

Pentagon spokespersons refused to confirm or deny the report. But analysts said it was a virtual certainty that the defence system was working as a precaution -- and as an opportunity to test it against a real missile launch.

"This is the missile that the system is designed to shoot down," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a group that tracks military developments.

"If he did launch an attack on America and the missile defence system was on vacation that day, it wouldn't look good," he said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that any missile launch would be seen as "a very serious matter and indeed a provocative act".

US President George Bush grouped North Korea with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an "axis of evil" in 2002 and relations between the two sides have been layered with rhetoric and mistrust.

A stand-off over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme erupted later that year when the United States accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium-enrichment programme.

North Korea responded by throwing out UN International Atomic Energy Agency weapons inspectors and abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In November last year, the North announced it was boycotting six-nation talks on its nuclear programme until the United States rescinded sanctions it put on Pyongyang for alleged counterfeiting and money-laundering.


Copyright 2006, Agence France Presse