North Korea Test-Fires Missiles

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
March 28, 2008; 10:35 AM

TOKYO, March 28 -- North Korea test-fired a volley of missiles into the sea Friday and warned that it might stop disabling its nuclear facilities unless the United States drops its demands for more details about the North's nuclear arsenal.

The missile launch and the combative warning -- which accused the Bush administration of "persistently trying to cook up fictions" -- came one day after the North expelled 11 South Korean officials from an industrial park north of the border that separates the two Koreas.

The White House called the missile tests "not constructive" and said North Korea should "refrain from testing missiles," Reuters news service reported. But South Korea played down the missile firings, characterizing them as part of a routine military exercise. "We believe the North does not want a deterioration of relations between South and North," a government spokesman said.

The three truculent actions in two days suggest that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, after a relatively placid stretch of cooperative diplomacy, is increasingly peeved by demands from the United States and South Korea.

The Bush administration is refusing to lift diplomatic sanctions against the North until it explains its suspected uranium enrichment program and details any efforts to sell nuclear technology to Syria or other countries. "North Korea should focus on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and deliver a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear weapons programs and nuclear proliferation activities," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said after the tests were reported.

North Korea reiterated on Friday that it has "never enriched uranium nor rendered cooperation to any other country."

South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, who was sworn in last month, is taking a much tougher line than his predecessors in dealing with the North. Lee's government has said it will condition food aid and economic assistance on human rights and on timely dismantlement of the North's nuclear program.

This week's flare-up in tension on the Korean peninsula comes at an unusually stressful time for Kim's government. It is facing dire food shortages due to weather-related crop failures, the soaring world price of food and declines in aid from South Korea, China and the U.N. World Food Program. The shortages are expected to reach their peak late this summer -- at a time when China, the North's closest ally and primary benefactor, will be hosting the Olympics.

Analysts say that China expects Kim's government not to allow disturbances inside North Korea that could, during the games, send hungry refugees spilling across the border into China.

For reasons that have not been explained publicly, China has been supplying less food assistance in the past three years to North Korea, according to figures compiled by the World Food Program.

At the same time, China -- in order to keep more food for its own population -- has this year slapped tariffs on food exports. Combined with much higher grain prices on world markets, the 22 percent Chinese tariff has substantially reduced the impoverished North's capacity to buy food from there.

Perhaps more important, South Korea has this spring delayed the delivery of the free fertilizer that the North has come to rely on. The delay, according to analysts, means that this year's harvest in North Korea will almost certainly fall far short of what is needed to feed the country next winter.

The World Food Program has warned that the North this summer will have about 25 percent less food than it needs to feed the country's 23 million people.

Most of the severely affected people are in rural northern areas of the country, but a South Korean aid group said this month that food shortages are also affecting the country's elite in the capital Pyongyang. Citing unnamed sources inside the country, Good Friends, a Buddhist group that sends food and other aid into North Korea, said that mid- and low-level officials in the capital were not receiving rations of rice.

With the near-collapse of the state-controlled economy in the North and a sharp increase in corruption among local police, analysts say that widespread discontent over food shortages -- especially if it spreads among the urban elite -- has the potential to destabilize Kim's government.

Complicating Kim's situation further, there are reports that North Korean military and industrial officials are unhappy with his government for granting access to U.S. diplomats to visit a missile factory. Speculation about the inner workings of the secretive North Korean government, of course, is mostly guesswork. But Keith Luse, an aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), visited North Korea in February and later wrote that Kim's efforts to strike a deal with the United States on nuclear weapons might be a "stretch too far" for hard-liners in his country.

Actions taken in the past two days show that, for whatever reasons, Kim's government is much less amiable that it was as recently as last month, when it welcomed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for an unprecedented concert in Pyongyang. A statement Friday from the North Korean foreign ministry warned that the United States is endangering an agreement brokered last year by six nations. The deal was intended to rid the North of nuclear weapons while providing it with energy assistance and ending its diplomatic and economic isolation.

The North insisted in Friday's statement that it has submitted paperwork that fulfills all its obligations under the agreement.

"Should the U.S. delay the settlement of the nuclear issue, persistently trying to cook up fictions, it will seriously affect the disabling of nuclear facilities which has been under way so far with a great deal of effort," the statement said.

The Bush administration has said North Korea has, in fact, disabled much of its primary nuclear facility, a plutonium plant at Yongbyon.

But it says that the North has failed to explain the extent of a different bomb-making process -- uranium enrichment -- and has refused to talk about whether it has shared nuclear technology with other countries, including Syria.

© The Washington Post Company