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North Korea plan to fire missile spurs doubt about US nuclear deal

North Korea's announcement that it would launch a long-range missile carrying a satellite throws into doubt the future of a food-for-nuclear-moratorium deal with the US. 

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / March 16, 2012

South Korean visitors walk by displays of mock North Korea's Scud-B missile (c.) and other South Korean missiles at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, March 16. North Korea announced Friday it plans to launch a long-range rocket mounted with a satellite next month, a surprise move that comes weeks after it agreed to nuclear concessions including a moratorium on long-range missile tests.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

North Korea put its agreement with the United States for food aid into jeopardy today with a plan for firing off a long-range missile with a satellite as payload.

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North Korea’s state media said the launch would coincide with massive celebrations surrounding the April 15 centennial of the birth of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994 and leaving power to his son, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.  

The US, Japan, and South Korea denounced the North Korean plan, revealed after a series of visits by Kim Jong-il’s third son, the North’s fledgling new “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un, to military units just above the demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the Korean War.

The plan for firing the missile again escalates regional tensions after hopes were raised in Washington by the US-North Korea “leap year” deal of Feb. 29.  South Koreans have been highly skeptical of the deal, widely viewed as a North Korean attempt at deceiving the US while bypassing the South.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at the damage that the launch of another long-range missile could do to the agreement with North Korea under which the US is to provide 240,000 tons of food aid. US envoy Robert King was just in Beijing working out details for shipments, but Ms. Clinton warned that a missile launch would “pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches."

The view here is that a missile launch could derail the program, at least until more US-North Korea talks.

The North Korean announcement evoked memories of similar launches in August 1998 and April 2009 that North Korea insisted had put satellites into orbit. Analysts say no satellites were detected, and that the actual purpose was to test the North’s Taepodong missile's potential for carrying a weapon of mass destruction, nuclear, biological, or chemical, as far as Hawaii or Alaska – or even the US West Coast.

“If these guys go through with long-range missile testing, of course the US will have to revisit the food shipments,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University. “You can never trust what these people say.”

Doubts in South Korea have increased in recent days as Kim Jong-un has urged soldiers to be on high alert, primed to “wipe out” South Korea’s regime, led by “traitor” President Lee Myung-bak. South Korean officials have basically shrugged off such talk, but the government said a North Koreean missile test, under the pretext of launching a satellite, would be "a grave provocation."

North Korea is on a fearsome propaganda campaign widely seen as an effort to build up Kim Jong-un as a military figure. In North Korean rhetoric, Kim Jong-un is often compared to his grandfather in fighting spirit as well as physical appearance, and he’s credited with having approved the missile test of April 2009 and a second nuclear test in May 2009.

Under the circumstances, “Controversy will arise,” says Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The US will have to postpone food aid. It should not be allowed.”

Ha Tae-keung, president of North Korea Open Radio, which broadcasts news, commentary, and music for two hours every day into North Korea by short wave from Seoul, sees the missile test as a possible prelude to a nuclear test later this year. He puts the testing in the context of US politics.

“Kim Jong-un is testing the US before the presidential election,” he says. “They are going to see how the US and South Korea respond.”

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