North Korea Missile Tests Grab World's Attention

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North Korea conducts a series of missile tests, launching at least seven rockets. All are reported to have fallen harmlessly into the sea, hundreds of miles away from Japan. A long-range model thought to be able to reach the U.S. fizzled shortly after launch.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, sitting in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. Here is the good news first.

Mr. MICHAEL KUCHAREK (Spokesman, U.S. Military): The six missiles that were launched from North Korea were not a threat to the United States or any of its territories.

INSKEEP: That reassurance comes from military spokesman Michael Kucharek. One of the missiles that North Korea tested was a long-range Taepodong-2. In theory, it could have reached the United States, but in reality, it failed just forty seconds after the launch. The testing still provoked protests from North Korea's neighbors, especially in Japan and South Korea. We'll hear more about that in a moment.

Here in Washington, the Bush administration called the North Korean action provocative. And in New York today, the United Nations Security Council holds an urgent, closed meeting. That's the kind of attention a country gets when it says it has nuclear weapons.

NPR's Mike Shuster has been covering the story. And Mike, why did North Korea take this step now, knowing that many countries around the world were insisting this test not take place?

MIKE SHUSTER, reporting:

Well, I'm afraid, Steve, that we can't actually answer that question clearly. North Korea hasn't stated its intentions. It hasn't given an explanation of why it did this now. It had erected this Taepodong-2 missile - the long-range missile - almost a month ago, and there has been tension internationally over whether it was going to test launch this missile for the last few weeks.

A lot of pressure was brought to bear from the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan on North Korea not to do this. And it looked for a couple of weeks like they might desist. And then yesterday, not only did they test the long-range missile - the Taepodong-2 - but they shot off five other missiles as well, completely taking everyone by surprise.

Certainly, the North Koreans have said that they take actions like this because they see the United States as a threat, and they want to deter the United States and the threat. Whether they're really serious about that is hard to know.

INSKEEP: Well, how seriously do the United States and its allies have to take this, given that the longest range of the missiles barely seemed to make it off the launching pad?

SHUSTER: Well, I think the United States and its allies take this very seriously. We're seeing a reaction in Japan that they are quite unnerved by this. Even the South Koreans, which have been trying to build a better relationship with North Korea, are very unhappy about this. And the Bush administration has called this a provocative act.

Ultimately, if the North Koreans continue to develop long-range missiles and test them, they'll probably get it right at some point in the future. It's hard to say when. This test was clearly a failure, but they will learn from that, just like the United States will learn what their capabilities are from this test.

INSKEEP: Does this series of tests end any possibility of talks with North Korea?

SHUSTER: No, I don't think in and of itself it will end the possibility of talks with North Korea. In fact, President Bush's national security advisor Steve Hadley has already said that the Bush administration wants to continue to talk with North Korea through the so-called six-party talks. But those talks -which also have involved South Korea, China, Russia and Japan - have been stalled since last September, and looked like they were all but dead this spring until the Chinese came along and said, well, we might try to restart them and put something new on the table. And then the North Koreans presented the other parties to these talks with the problem of their missiles. In fact, the launches may increase the momentum to try to get the North Koreans to come back to the table. It certainly looks like the other parties to these talks will be willing to talk with North Korea, if North Korea is willing.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that an American diplomat, Christopher Hill -who has been heard on this program a number of times - is on his way to the region. What can he accomplish?

SHUSTER: Well, he'll certainly talk to the Chinese and the South Koreans and the Japanese. And my guess is that his real focus will be on the Chinese. The United States has wanted China all along to exercise its considerable influence on North Korea to get it back to the six-party talks, to denuclearize, and more recently, to prevent this test from occurring. In fact, the Chinese are likely to be embarrassed by this, because they all but told North Korea not to do it. And North Korea went ahead and did it anyway.

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mike Shuster speaking to us this morning after North Korea tested about half a dozen missiles. The longest range of those missiles barely made it off the launching pad and failed after about 40 seconds, crashing into the Sea of Japan.

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