North Korea readies missile, makes new threat
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Thursday that if the international community punishes it for next month's planned missile launch it will restart a nuclear plant that makes weapons grade plutonium.
The secretive state this week put a long-range missile in place for a launch the United States warned would violate U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for past weapons tests.
The planned launch, seen by some countries as a disguised military exercise, is the first big test for U.S. President Barack Obama in dealing with the prickly North, whose efforts to build a nuclear arsenal have long plagued ties with Washington.
North Korea warned that any action by the U.N. Security Council to punish it would be a "hostile act."
"... All the processes for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula ... will be brought back to what used to be before their start and necessary strong measures will be taken, "the North's foreign ministry spokesman said in comments carried by the official KCNA news agency.
North Korea has frozen its aging nuclear reactor and started to take apart its Yongbyon atomic plant under a deal signed by regional powers in 2005 that called for economic aid and better diplomatic standing for the isolated North in return. Despite the agreement, the North carried out a nuclear test in 2006.
The South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo quoted a diplomatic source as saying the North could fire its Taepodong-2 missile, which has the range to hit U.S. territory, by the weekend.
This is earlier than the April 4-8 timeframe Pyongyang announced for what it says is the launch of a satellite.
"Technically a launch is possible within three to four days," the Chosun Ilbo quoted a diplomatic source in Seoul as saying.
The U.S. State Department said top nuclear envoys from Japan, South Korea and the United States will meet in Washington on Friday in a signal of growing concern over the possible launch.
U.S. diplomats responsible for the North Korea nuclear dossier will meet the Japanese and South Korean envoys separately and then all three parties could meet informally, spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
The White House said a missile launch by Pyongyang would be "provocative" and in violation of United Nations resolutions. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, said that a North Korean missile launch would risk international condemnation or "worse," told reporters in Washington.
South Korea said the launch would be a serious challenge to security in north Asia, which accounts for one sixth of the global economy. Japan urged North Korea to refrain from action that would destabilize the region.
"We strongly urge the North to immediately stop the launch of a long-range missile, which would be a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution 1718," South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters.
ROCKET ON THE PAD
On Wednesday, a U.S. counter-proliferation official told Reuters that North Korea appeared to have positioned the rocket on its launch pad.
Another U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said North Korea had placed together two stages of what is expected to be a three-stage rocket.
Once it has been positioned, North Korea will need several days to fuel the rocket which could, in theory, carry a warhead as far as Alaska. The only previous test of the rocket in 2006 ended in failure when it blew apart seconds after lift-off.
South Korea plans to dispatch an advanced destroyer capable of tracking and shooting down missiles to waters off the east coast, Yonhap news agency quoted government sources as saying.
The planned launch and growing tension on the Korean peninsula are beginning to worry financial markets in the South, although so far there has been only minor impact.
"If they really fire something, it would definitely shake the financial markets, but only briefly, as has been the case in many previous cases of provocation and clashes," said Jung Sung-min, a fixed-income analyst at Eugene Futures.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Mexico, said on Wednesday the launch would deal a blow to six-party talks to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
Those talks sputtered to a halt in December over disagreement on how to check the North was disabling its nuclear facilities.
Pyongyang repeated its threat on Thursday to quit the six-party talks, which also involve South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States and China, if it was punished.
CHINA TO BLOCK MORE SANCTIONS?
North Korea faces a range of U.N. sanctions and many analysts doubt new ones would get past China -- the nearest Pyongyang has to a powerful ally -- in the Security Council.
China, sticking to its low-key approach, said it hoped all "relevant parties will remain restrained and calm."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned the international community against making rash decisions.
"Do not try to make evaluations before events have occurred," he said in Moscow, while noting U.N. Security Council resolutions should be adhered to.
A successful launch would be a huge boost at home to leader Kim Jong-il, whose illness last year -- widely thought to have been a stroke -- has raised questions over his grip on power.
North Korea has given international agencies notice of the rocket's planned trajectory that would take it over Japan, dropping booster stages to its east and west.
The U.S. military has said it could with "high probability" intercept any North Korean missile heading for U.S. territory, if ordered to do so. Pyongyang says any attempt to shoot down the rocket would be an act of war.
(Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, Sue Pleming and Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON, Arshad Mohammed in MEXICO CITY, and Jack Kim, Jon Herskovitz, Yoo Choonsik and Seo Eun-kyung in SEOUL; Editing by Dean Yates and Frances Kerry)
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