SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Monday it had the right to launch its longest-range missile, raising tensions just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in the region for talks likely to focus on the reclusive state.
The announcement came as North Korea marked the 67th birthday of leader Kim Jong-il with displays of synchronized swimming and aging cadres praising a “peerlessly great man,” who appears to have recovered from a suspected stroke in August.
South Korean media reports say Pyongyang has been preparing its longest-range Taepodong-2 missile for a test while officials in Seoul have been anticipating a short-range missile test near a disputed sea border where navies from the two side have clashed in the past.
The North’s KCNA news agency said the country had the right to fire its longest-range rocket, which is supposed to be able to hit Alaska but has never successfully flown.
“One will come to know later what will be launched in the DPRK (North Korea),” KCNA said.
North Korea has been preparing to test missiles since January, the South’s defense minister Lee Sang-hee told parliament, adding he had given commanders in the field authorization to respond to any North Korean provocation.
“If the North wages aggression, our forces will move based on all possible scenarios and local commanders will be using our power to end the situation in the shortest possible time,” Lee said.
North Korea says the long-range missile is the cornerstone of its peaceful space program, although experts say it is for military purposes and designed to strike the United States.
Clinton, on her first overseas visit since taking office, flew to Asia where the North and the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents will be high on her agenda.
She was scheduled to arrive in Japan later on Monday on a trip that also takes her to Indonesia, South Korea and China.
On Friday, Clinton offered North Korea a peace treaty, normal ties and aid if it eliminated its nuclear arms program. There has been no response yet from Pyongyang.
In recent weeks, North Korea’s harsh rhetoric has increased sharply, including a threat to destroy the wealthy South in anger at the hardline policies of its President Lee Myung-bak.
Analysts said North Korea is using the missile threat to put pressure on President Lee to end curbs he placed on aid to the destitute state and grab the Obama administration’s attention.
SPECULATION OVER SUCCESSOR
Kim’s health problems have set off fresh speculation over who might succeed him as leader of Asia’s only communist dynasty, whose efforts to become a nuclear weapons power mean it is never far from the international community’s list of major concerns.
Kim appears to have recovered although his trademark paunch presses less clearly on his mud-grey jumpsuits, the bouffant hair has thinned and he appears to have given up wearing platform shoes -- with speculation in the South that, post-stroke, these are harder for him to balance in.
Kim, who took power after his father and state founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, has vexed the world for years with his pursuit of nuclear arms and the constant threat of sending his one million-strong army across the border that has divided the Korean peninsula for over half a century.
He has relied on military threats, with some success, to squeeze concessions from global powers to help keep afloat a ravaged economy that has grown smaller since he took power.
In North Korea, Kim’s birthday means festivals with singing soldiers, dancing in the street, a few extra handfuls of rice for workers and sweets for children. The North said “a mysterious moon halo” was seen above Mt Jong-il just before the birthday.
It is not unusual for the reclusive Kim, who received congratulatory notes from political leaders in China, Russia and a host of small states, to miss the public birthday celebrations.
But his absence in the past year from events he usually attends raised concern about his health, his grip on power and who was making decisions on the North’s nuclear arms programs.
This year, synchronized swimmers and figure skaters performed and a national meeting was held at which the North’s nominal number two leader, Kim Yong-nam, said: “The history of humankind has never known such a peerlessly great man as Kim Jong-il.”
Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Editing by Dean Yates
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