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U.S. may down a threatening missile

Secretary Gates, however, downplays possible danger from a North launch   PLAY AUDIO

Feb 12,2009
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated Washington could shoot down North Korea’s long-range missile if the communist country actually fires it toward the United States.

Gates’ comment came at a time when Pyongyang is suspected of taking a series of steps to prepare for another Taepodong II missile test, the first such move after a failed missile test in 2006. Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also expressed concerns over Pyongyang’s recent flurry of hostile rhetoric and suspected missile test preparation, calling the latest developments “unacceptable.”

The recent comments from two top Washington officials came a week before Clinton’s scheduled visit to Northeast Asia, including South Korea. At a Pentagon press conference, Gates downplayed the threat of the North’s Taepodong missile, which he said showed poor performance in the 2006 test.

“Since the first time that they launched the missile, it flew for a few minutes before crashing, the range of the Taepodong II remains to be seen,” Gates told reporters yesterday. “So far, it’s very short.”

But Gates also suggested Washington is ready to respond to any real missile threat from the North. When asked if the U.S. military is prepared to shoot down the North’s missile if it’s fired toward U.S. territory, he said doing so is “an option.”

“I certainly intend to make sure that my colleagues - the secretary of state, national security adviser, president and vice president - understand what our capabilities are, and that that’s an option out there should ... we deem it necessary.”

North Korea’s Taepodong II missile is believed to be capable of hitting targets 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) away, far enough to reach Alaska. Its first missile tested failed 40 seconds after launch. Intelligence officials in Seoul and Washington said last week North Korea recently moved what looked like a Taepodong II missile from its weapons production plant to a missile base, fanning concerns that Pyongyang may want to increase tension to gain political leverage in upcoming nuclear negotiations with the new U.S. administration. A U.S. spy satellite captured an image within the last several days that showed North Korea has been assembling electronic equipment used to monitor missile launches, according to CNN yesterday.

Gates yesterday urged Pyongyang to move more actively to break the currently stalled six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing Pyongyang.

“It would be nice if North Korea would focus on getting positive messages to its negotiating partners about verification and moving forward with the denuclearization,” he said.

The view echoed Clinton, who reiterated Washington’s commitment to the six-party talks amid growing concerns in Seoul that the new U.S. administration may prefer direct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang.

“North Korea has to understand that all of the countries in East Asia have made it clear that its behavior is viewed as unacceptable,” she said in a press conference in Washington yesterday. “And there are opportunities for the government and people of North Korea to engage through the six-party talks ... we’re hopeful that we will see that in the weeks and months ahead.”

Clinton is expected to tour three Northeast Asian countries next week, including Seoul on Feb. 19 to 20.


By Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter [hawon@joongang.co.kr]



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