Thursday, July 2, 2009

NKorea 'fires two short-range missiles'

SEOUL (AFP) — North Korea Thursday fired two short-range missiles, fuelling tensions sparked by its nuclear standoff, as a US team began talks in China on ways to make UN sanctions bite against Pyongyang.

The missiles were launched in the early evening from a base near the eastern port of Wonsan, South Korea's defence ministry said.

"They appear to be ground-to-ship missiles, which were launched into the East Sea (Sea of Japan)," a spokesman told AFP.

"We have no detailed information now but there have been preparations for missile launches in the region."

The North has responded angrily to United Nations sanctions imposed following its long-range rocket launch on April 5 and a May 25 nuclear test, and vowed to bolster its defences.

It warned Japan Wednesday to stay clear of some areas off its east and west coasts during military exercises lasting until July 11.

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, quoting an intelligence source, said the North in coming days is likely to fire a series of short-range missiles.

Apart from ground-to-ship weapons with a range of 140 kilometres (88 miles), it said these would likely include Scud-B missiles with a range of 340 km.

The North may also fire Rodongs, whose 1,300-km range would likely be shortened to some 400 km for the current round of testing, the paper predicted.

In the days after its atomic test -- the second since 2006 -- Pyongyang had fired a total of six short-range missiles and renounced the truce in force on the Korean peninsula.

In response to a UN resolution on June 12 tightening curbs on its missile and atomic activities, it vowed to build more nuclear bombs.

US and South Korean officials believe ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, is staging a show of strength to bolster his authority as he tries to put in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

Seoul's defence ministry refused to confirm a Yonhap news agency report that the North Thursday fired KN-01 missiles with a range of up to 160 km.

The agency quoted an unnamed military official as saying the missiles travelled about 100 km.

The official said the launches could be part of a military exercise but speculated there may be more missiles "in a show of force" to the outside world.

A US delegation Thursday met officials in Beijing for talks on giving the UN sanctions teeth.

The support of China, the North's sole major ally and largest trade partner, is seen as crucial in making the sanctions stick.

The delegation led by Philip Goldberg -- the State Department's point man on coordinating implementation of the sanctions -- met officials from the foreign ministry, the US embassy said.

His team includes members of the National Security Council and the departments of Treasury and Defence.

US warships have since mid-June been tracking a North Korean ship suspected of carrying weapons. The Kang Nam 1 was reportedly headed for Myanmar but US officials said Tuesday it has now turned back.

China, which stresses diplomacy over force with its neighbour, said its top envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue, Wu Dawei, had begun a visit to Russia, the United States, Japan and South Korea.

They are members of a forum which has tried since 2003 to persuade the North to disarm in return for energy aid and diplomatic and security benefits. The North announced it was quitting the talks after the UN censured its rocket launch.

North and South Korea met Thursday for more talks about the fate of their last major joint business project, the Seoul-funded Kaesong industrial estate just north of the border.

They failed to narrow differences or to set the date for their next meeting, Seoul officials said.

The South rejects the North's demand for huge pay rises and rent increases at Kaesong, and demands freedom for a South Korean worker who has been held for more than 90 days.

The North alleges the man slandered its political system and tried to incite a local woman worker to defect. It refuses to grant access to him.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved.

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