US warns North Korea on missile test, rejects talks

By Rupert Cornwell, Tabassum Zakaria

VIENNA - President George W. Bush has warned North Korea against test-firing a long-range missile, while other US officials rejected an overture from Pyongyang for bilateral talks with Washington on the issue.

Bush, speaking in Vienna after talks with EU leaders on Wednesday local time, said North Korea must abide by international missile test agreements.

"North Koreans have made agreements with us in the past and we expect them to keep their agreements," Bush said.

"For example agreements on test launches - we think it would be in the world's interest to know what they're testing, what they intend to do on their test," he said.

Washington says there is evidence North Korea might test-fire its Taepodong-2 long-range missile and has activated a ground-based interceptor missile-defence system in case Pyongyang goes ahead with a launch.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the North wanted talks with the United States over its planned missile test, a sign Pyongyang might be ready to step back from the mounting crisis.

Washington ruled out any special talks over the issue which it, along with South Korea and Japan, says poses a grave danger to a region already worried by North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

"We know that the US is concerned about our missile test launch," Yonhap quoted North Korea's deputy chief of mission at the United Nations in New York, Han Song-ryol, as saying.

"Our position is to solve this situation through discussions," Han said, but added that Pyongyang had a right to develop and test missiles.

John Bolton, US ambassador to the United Nations, rejected the offer. "I've noted that the North Korean (deputy ambassador) here has said actually what they want to do is talk to us if we're so concerned with it," Bolton told reporters.

"I must say you don't normally engage in conversations by threatening to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its not a way to produce a conversation because if you acquiesce in aberrant behaviour you simply encourage the repetition of it, which we're obviously not going to do," he said.

"So the main point remains that North Korea should not launch", Bolton said.

Six-way talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, the United States and Russia have been stalled since November. The talks are aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear arms programmes in return for aid and security assurances.

US Ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, told reporters in Tokyo said all options were on the table in terms of a response to any missile launch, although other US officials have said that Washington was unlikely to try to shoot it down.

Tokyo has also threatened a harsh response.

North Korea has refused to return to the talks unless the United States ends a crackdown on firms it suspects of aiding the North in illicit activity such as counterfeiting.

Some analysts said North Korea may be feeling the crackdown and Pyongyang is piqued that US and world attention has shifted to concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"One reason North Korea may be preparing for a test is because what they want to avoid is the perception of weakness," said a diplomatic source in Seoul. "They are feeling strangled."

North Korea shocked the world in 1998 when it fired a missile, part of which flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. Pyongyang trumpeted that as a satellite launch.

- REUTERS

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