CLINTON administration officials believe that North Korea has deferred plans to sell Iran a new missile that Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey calls a threat to United States allies.
Officials speaking privately said it was unclear why the sale had been put off, or for how long. They left open the possibility that it could be linked to diplomatic maneuvering over US demands for full inspection of North Korea's nuclear facilities.
Another explanation could be production problems with the missile or a hangup in final arrangements with the Iranian government, US officials said. Whatever the reason, they said, the delay is a welcome development.
Mr. Woolsey, in congressional testimony last July, disclosed that North Korea had tested the new surface-to-surface missile, which the US calls the Nodong 1. He said it has a range of about 620 miles. ``Of greatest concern is North Korea's continued efforts to sell the missile abroad - particularly to dangerous and potentially hostile countries such as Iran,'' Woolsey said. ``With this missile, North Korea could reach Japan; Iran could reach Israel; and Libya could reach US bases and allied capitals in the Mediterranean region.''
North Korea already has ballistic missiles, but none are powerful enough to reach Japan. The disclosure this year of the Nodong flight test caused a stir in Tokyo, prompting the Japanese government to consider buying Patriot anti-missile missiles from the US. Japan has no missile-defense system.
Woolsey said the Nodong 1 was especially worrisome to Washington because it could be fitted not only with conventional high-explosive warheads but also nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. He said Iran was interested because it was finding it harder to get missile technology from Western sources.
The US government claims that Iran and North Korea are trying to develop nuclear weapons. Both deny it.
Sale of the Nodong 1 would violate terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international agreement to which Iran and North Korea are not parties, that bans the sale of missiles or components of missiles with ranges greater than 190 miles.
Ho Jong, North Korea's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said last week his country never intended to sell any ballistic missiles to Iran. ``There is no sale. It is entirely false,'' he said.