SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has fired two short-range missiles into the Yellow Sea, a news report said on Wednesday, in a move seen as aimed at dialing up tension as global powers try to make Pyongyang uphold a nuclear disarmament deal.
The North fired the missiles into the Yellow Sea on Tuesday as a part of routine military training, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited an unidentified government official as saying.
The North, however, has a history of timing its missile launches to periods of increased tension in the region in saber-rattling bids aimed to show that it is ready to take a hard and defiant line, analysts have said.
“We understand North Korea fired two short-range missiles in the afternoon of (October) 7th into the (Yellow) Sea,” Yonhap quoted an unidentified South Korean official as saying.
“North Korea declared a no-sail order in the (Yellow Sea) before the missile launch,” the official said.
South Korean and U.S. defense officials would not confirm the report.
The U.S. administration declined to discuss intelligence on the reported North Korean missile firing but said its concerns were long-standing and well documented.
“North Korea’s development, deployment and proliferation of missiles and missile-related materials, equipment and technology pose a threat to the region and the world,” a U.S. Defense Department spokesman said.
“The entire world doesn’t want to see weapons of mass destruction or missile technology proliferated to other people, that could use it against us or other countries” said Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the U.S. military in South Korea.
“It’s all of our obligation to be able to watch that, report it and to stop it,” he told reporters in Washington.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he was unable to confirm the reports, but said firing such missiles was “not helpful in any way in managing tensions within the region.”
North Korea maintains an arsenal of missiles that can hit all of South Korea and most parts of Japan. In recent months, it has been upgrading its launch sites, local media reported intelligence sources as saying.
Last week, a senior U.S. diplomat went to Pyongyang in a bid to convince North Korea to return to a disarmament-for-aid deal and halt it plans to restart it Soviet-era nuclear plant that makes bomb grade plutonium.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill has declined to say if he made progress in his talks that were focused on having secretive North Korea agree to a system to verify checks it made about its nuclear arms program.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who on Tuesday briefed President George W. Bush on Hill’s visit, told reporters: “We are continuing to work on the issue over whether the verification protocol meets our standards.”
The nuclear agreement North Korea struck with the five regional powers in February 2007 seemed in peril after Pyongyang, angry at not being removed from a U.S. terrorism blacklist, vowed last month to rebuild the aging Yongbyon nuclear plant.
Washington said it would take the North off the terrorism list, bringing economic and diplomatic benefits, once a system had been agreed to verify its nuclear claims.
A senior Vienna diplomat familiar with North Korea and U.N. monitoring there said Hill probably received a significant proposal from the North Koreans, who may be trying to squeeze concessions from the Bush administration before it leaves office.
“But knowing how late it is in the current administration and the ill-will that’s been generated between the two sides because of the current impasse, it would not be a surprise to discover that the proposal will make many key players in Washington very uncomfortable, and could well be a non-starter,” the diplomat said.
“They have only one card to play at this point — increasing tension,” the diplomat said before the reports of the missile launch.
Additional reporting by Yoo Choonsik and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul, Mark Heinrich in Vienna and Jim Wolf, Susan Cornwell and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Jerry Norton