(AP) - North Korea said Wednesday it wants direct talks with the United States over its apparent plans to test-fire a long-range missile, a day after the country issued a bristling statement in which it declared its right to carry out the launch.
Tensions in the region have soared following intelligence reports that the North was fueling a ballistic missile believed capable of reaching U.S. territory. The U.S. and Japan have said they could consider sanctions against the impoverished country if it goes ahead, and Washington was weighing responses that could include attempting to shoot the missile down, reports Trend.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung cited the missile crisis as the reason for canceling a trip next week to the North that could have offered a rare chance for talks to soothe tensions.
North Korea said in comments published Wednesday that its self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles from 1999 no longer applies because it's not in direct dialogue with Washington, suggesting it would hold off on any launch if Washington agreed to new talks.
"Some say our missile test launch is a violation of the moratorium, but this is not the case," Han Song Ryol, deputy chief of North Korea's mission to the United Nations, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency in an interview from New York.
"North Korea as a sovereign state has the right to develop, deploy, test fire and export a missile," he said. "We are aware of the U.S. concerns about our missile test-launch. So our position is that we should resolve the issue through negotiations."
Pyongyang has consistently pressed for direct dialogue with the United States, while Washington insists it will only speak to the North at six-nation nuclear talks. The North has refused to return to those nuclear talks since November because of a U.S. crackdown on the country's alleged illicit financial activity.
On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Scheiffer, called on Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks but did not address the possibility of bilateral negotiations.
"They have the opportunity to do that through the six-party talks," he said. "They don't have to undertake bad policies in order to talk to the United States."
He also said the United States has means of responding to a North Korean missile test that it didn't have the last time Pyongyang carried out a launch in 1998, and is considering "all options."
Scheiffer didn't specify what those options were, but defense officials in Washington told The Associated Press that the White House was weighing responses to a missile launch that could include attempting to shoot it down while in flight over the Pacific. However, such a move was considered unlikely.
On Tuesday, North Korea asserted its right to test-fire missiles in a sharply worded statement to Japanese reporters in Pyongyang.
"This issue concerns our autonomy. Nobody has a right to slander that right," the Kyodo News agency quoted North Korean Foreign Ministry official Ri Pyong Dok as saying.
A year after it shocked the world by test-firing a missile over northern Japan, North Korea imposed a missile moratorium in 1999 amid friendlier relations with the United States. During a 2002 summit with Japan, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il signed an agreement to extend the moratorium until at least 2003 and reaffirmed the launch ban at another summit in 2004.
Japan disputed the North's position on lifting the moratorium.
"If the missile is launched, it is clear the act will violate" the 2002 agreement, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo. "It will also breach promises with the international community."
Meanwhile, a meeting that had raised hopes for dialogue over the missile issue was called off amid the heightened tensions. Kim Dae-jung's trip to the North was canceled because the conditions had "become difficult," Jeong Se-hyun, a former unification minister, told a Seoul news conference. Jeong said the trip would be possible only once the missile crisis is resolved.
Kim Dae-jung met Kim Jong Il in June 2000 in the first-and-only summit between leaders of the divided Koreas. The two Kims had been expected to meet again during the scheduled four-day visit.
Intelligence reports say the North has fueled a Taepodong-2 missile with a range experts estimate could be up to 9,300 miles making it capable of reaching parts of the United States. North Korea claims it has nuclear weapons, but isn't believed to have a design that would be small and light enough to top a missile.
U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said signs of a possible North Korean launch remained uncertain. "They seem to be moving toward a launch, but the intelligence is not conclusive at this point," Hadley told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Europe, where President Bush was meeting Wednesday with European leaders.
Bad weather at the launch site Wednesday dimmed chances of an immediate test.