N. Korea Threatens To Down U.S. Spy Aircraft

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 2, 2009

TOKYO, April 1 -- Having alarmed much of the world with its planned launch of a long-range missile, North Korea is showing no signs this week of wanting anyone to calm down.

The government of Kim Jong Il warned Wednesday in a radio broadcast that its forces "will relentlessly shoot down" U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that monitor preparation for its missile launch, which could occur as early as this weekend.

That warning against "brigandish U.S. imperialists" came on top of North Korea's announcement Tuesday that it would put on trial for "hostile acts" two American journalists who were detained in mid-March after they apparently crossed from China into North Korea.

North Korea, a heavily armed but nearly broke communist dictatorship, has long specialized in provoking the international community and then collecting a measure of tribute by pledging to behave more responsibly. It exploded a small nuclear device in 2006, and less than a year later signed a deal with the United States and four other countries to abandon its nuclear program in return for food, fuel and diplomatic concessions. That deal is stalled.

This spring, the headline-making provocation is a three-stage missile that sits on a launchpad in the country's northeast. It is scheduled for launch sometime between April 4 and 8.

North Korea says the rocket is part of a peaceful research project to send a communications satellite into orbit. The United States says the real purpose of the launch is to test a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile that could reach the western United States -- and could one day carry a nuclear warhead.

Russia has urged North Korea to cancel the launch, and China, North Korea's closest ally and principal benefactor, has hinted that it is not pleased.

Early this week, the United States, Japan and South Korea deployed ships with U.S.-made anti-missile systems to monitor the launch. But if the North Korean missile does send a satellite into orbit, these three countries have said they have no intention of trying to shoot it down.

Experts who have examined recent satellite photographs of the rocket said its payload is probably a satellite-like device.

"I am estimating a satellite weighing between 330 and 880 pounds," said Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, the flight trajectory of the launch takes it over northern Japan, and the Japanese government said last week that if the rocket fails in flight, Japan might use missiles to destroy falling debris that could imperil its territory.

The launch is scheduled for just before the annual meeting of North Korea's parliament, which will once again confirm the leadership of Kim, 67, whose suspected stroke last summer had raised questions about his health and soundness of mind.

International anxiety about the launch has given Kim a high-visibility opportunity to demonstrate fist-shaking resolve and show to his fellow North Koreans that he remains in charge.

North Korea has said it would go to war if any country tries to shoot down its missile. Kim's government has also said that should the United States or any other country attempt to use the missile launch to toughen U.N. sanctions against the North, it would cancel its agreement to abandon nuclear weapons and would break off talks on the matter.

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