July 2, 2009 / 8:59 AM / 8 years ago

North Korea raises tension with missile launch

<p>North Korean soldiers walk along the North Korean/ Chinese border near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese city of Dandong, July 2, 2009. REUTERS/Jacky Chen</p>

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles on Thursday, further stoking tension in the region that was already high due to Pyongyang’s nuclear test and threats to boost its nuclear arsenal in response to U.N. sanctions.

North Korea fired two surface-to-ship missiles off its east coast that flew about 100 km (60 miles) and splashed into the sea, a South Korean defense official said.

A South Korean daily said that the secretive North may also test fire mid-range missiles in a matter of days.

Washington said this week it had tightened its crackdown on firms linked to the North’s lucrative proliferation of missiles, a major source of cash for the destitute state, and has sent the U.S. point man for sanctions to Asia for discussions.

North Korea was hit with U.N. sanctions following its May 25 nuclear test. Analysts said enforcement of the sanctions, aimed at halting its trade in arms, would depend heavily on China, the North’s biggest benefactor and trade partner.

China said on Thursday it was sending its envoy to six-country talks aimed at ending the North’s atomic ambitions to South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States. North Korea, the final party in the talks, is not on the itinerary.

“China has consistently advocated dialogue and consultation, and achieving denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through the six-party talks process,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news briefing.

MISSILE MOVES

The JoongAng Ilbo daily on Thursday quoted an intelligence source as saying the North was likely to fire medium or short range missiles from its east coast in early July that could include Scuds with a range of about 340 km (210 miles) or Rodong missiles with a range of up to 1,000 km (620 miles).

North Korea fired a barrage of short-range missiles following its recent nuclear test, which experts said put the state closer to having a working nuclear bomb.

It launched a rocket in April in what was widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test that violated U.N. resolutions banning it from ballistic missile launches.

<p>North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C) visits to the Hamhung semiconductor materials factory in South Hamgyong Province, North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's official news agency KCNA on July 1, 2009. REUTERS/KCNA</p>

On Tuesday, the United States said it was cracking down on companies involved in North Korea’s suspected missile proliferation and in the purchase of equipment that could be used in a nuclear weapons programme.

Philip Goldberg, the U.S. envoy who coordinates sanctions against the North, went to China to enlist Beijing’s help in getting tough with North Korea.

He will be in Malaysia on Sunday before heading back to Washington on Monday. It was not immediately clear why he was visiting Malaysia.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said he was seeking a meeting of the foreign ministers of the six countries including the North on the sidelines of a regional security forum on July 23 in Thailand.

Officials said the North’s military grandstanding is likely related to moves by its leadership to begin readying leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son as a future heir by consolidating the 67-year-old leader’s power base.

TWO KOREA DISCUSS TROUBLED PROJECT

Meanwhile, the two Koreas held talks about fees paid at a joint factory project in the North that is a major source of legitimate foreign currency for the cash-short communist state and the last major project between the rival states.

North Korea repeated its demand for a sharp increase in wages and lease fees at Kaesong park, where South Korean companies use cheap North Korean labor and land to make goods, a South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman said.

About 100 South Korean companies pay $70 a month per person to employ about 40,000 North Koreans.

Analysts said North Korea was trying to squeeze more money out of the South Korean companies in Kaesong as U.N. sanctions imposed for its missile and nuclear tests begin to grip the state that produces few goods other than arms it can export.

The North said in May it was cancelling all wage, rent and tax agreements for the park, once hailed as a model of future economic cooperation between the rival states technically still at war who share one of the world’s most militarized borders.

The North refused to discuss the release of a South Korean worker held there for more than three months supposedly for insulting the North’s political system.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Kim Yeon-hee and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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