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Globe and Mail June 20, 2006

North Korea fuels long-range missile

U.S. warns Pyongyang that a test launch would be regarded as a 'provocative act'

By Paul Koring

WASHINGTON -- Pyongyang and Washington lurched closer to confrontation yesterday as a long-range North Korean missile was fuelled while top Bush administration officials warned any launch would be a serious provocation.

U.S. President George W. Bush and North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il have traded bellicose salvos before, but this time the as-yet-untested Taepodong-2 missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and possibly reaching North America's West Coast, lifted the confrontation to new levels.

"It would be a very serious matter and, indeed, a provocative act should North Korea decide to launch that missile," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned.

After months of escalating tension between the Bush administration and Tehran's ruling mullahs over Iran's nuclear program and its testing of ever-longer-range missiles, including some of North Korean origin, the spotlight suddenly shifted when it emerged that Pyongyang had moved its Taepodong-2 missile -- long rumoured but never previously seen -- to a launch pad.

Satellite photos and enigmatic North Korean news reports indicated the liquid-fuelled missile was loaded and ready for liftoff. But North Korea's self-styled "Dear Leader" may just be posturing.

"He likes to negotiate in crisis, so he has created one," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and a leading analyst of illicit weapons programs. Mr. Pike suggested Pyongyang may have moved because of the apparent success Tehran has achieved in forcing Washington to blink in its confrontation over nuclear weapons.

"Kim is seeing [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad on the TV all the time," Mr. Pike said. "And he knows the White House has showed a little ankle" in its dealings with Tehran. The United States, in conjunction with its European allies, unveiled a package that would give Tehran a range of commercial and political advantages if it complies with international inspections of its nuclear programs and ends its uranium-enrichment programs.

Some analysts, such as Mr. Pike, regard the two efforts for nuclear warheads and missile development as one.

"It's one program, doing business at three locations," Mr. Pike said. He pointedly fingers Pakistan, now a key U.S. ally but formerly a shunned state conducting illicit proliferation efforts with Iran and North Korea. "If one of them has it, they all have it," Mr. Pike said.

International inspectors have found documents suggesting that Pakistan gave or sold key information about uranium enrichment to Iran. Last January, the latest version of a shorter-range North Korean missile was tested in Iran. It also seems clear that near-identical missiles bearing different names are being developed and tested in both countries.

The new crisis over North Korea may provoke a military response -- something Mr. Bush has always said remains a possibility -- if Pyongyang actually fires the missile, even in a test flight without a warhead.

Japan also warned of unspecified consequences. "If [the North Koreans] ignore our views and launch a missile, then the Japanese government, consulting with the United States, would have to respond harshly," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.

A senior South Korean official, speaking on condition that he not be named, told news agencies that he expected a launch.

"We think North Korea has poured liquid fuel into the missile propellant built in the missile launching pad," he said. "It is at the finishing stage before launching."

The Taepodong-2 missile, under development for more than a decade, remains shrouded in secrecy and the subject of widely varying estimates of its capability.

Some believe it could loft a smallish nuclear warhead as far as 13,000 kilometres, far enough to hit most major cities in North America.

Others suggest its range at half that, or even less, sufficient only to hit sparsely populated parts of Alaska. However, even at the lower estimates of its range, the missile -- if fired from Tehran -- could target most of Western Europe.

Copyright 2006, Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.