WASHINGTON -- North Korea said yesterday that it is not bound by its own moratorium on long-range missile tests, as tension over Pyongyang's intentions continued to mount.
In Washington, a senior State Department official challenged North Korea's interpretation, saying that the United States expects the Pyongyang government to abide by its commitments.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry official had told Japanese reporters that a missile test would not be "bound by any statement such as the Pyongyang Declaration," the Kyodo news agency reported. The agency quoted Ri Pyong Dok as saying: "This issue concerns our autonomy. Nobody has a right to slander that right."
The Pyongyang Declaration, issued in 2002, was signed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In it, North Korea pledged to extend a moratorium on ballistic missile launches.
But North Korea's agreement not to conduct test launches of its long-range missiles is not a binding treaty.
Pyongyang agreed in 1999 to a moratorium on long-range missile tests. Charles Kartman, who negotiated the measure as the U.S. special envoy, said the understanding was worked out on the assumption that the United States and North Korea would conduct negotiations on a U.S. proposal to ban the testing, production and development of long-range North Korean missiles. But such negotiations have not been held since 2000.
"The moratorium was to be in effect only so long as the two sides were engaged in missile talks," Kartman said. "The Bush administration's disinterest in continuing the missile negotiations would have, of course, canceled out the 1999 moratorium."
North Korea later agreed to extend the moratorium as part of a separate 2002 understanding with Japan. In a joint declaration, North Korea "expressed its will to extend its moratorium on missile tests beyond 2003 in the spirit of the declaration," according to an English-language translation.
The Bush administration had taken the position that both moratoriums are in effect. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that the United States would regard a missile launch as an "abrogation of obligations that North Korea undertook in the moratorium that they signed onto in 1999, that they reiterated in 2002."
"A basic tenet of international relations is that when you say you're going to do something, you do it," a senior State Department official said yesterday, asking that his name not be used. "You abide by your commitments, and if you don't, you are judged accordingly."
The issue of the moratorium emerged along with reports that the United States has raised the alert status of its ground-based missile defense system. The Pentagon has deployed 11 interceptors in a test status in Alaska and California and has not conducted a successful intercept test in four years. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has asserted that the missiles could be activated if international events warrant it and noted that several tests in which a target is to be intercepted are scheduled for this year and early next year.
Pentagon officials refused to discuss the status of the system. "We have a limited missile-defense system," said Pentagon spokesman Eric Ruff. "We don't discuss the alert status or the specific capabilities." The Washington Times reported yesterday that the system had been activated.
Missile defense proponents said North Korea's missile preparations would strengthen the case for building more robust defenses. "The activity by North Korea clearly makes the case that a missile defense is necessary for American security," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who chairs the House Armed Service Committee.
Critics said the system is an illusory shield against a threat that has yet to materialize. "The system being declared operational is no more than a scarecrow, incapable of fooling anyone except perhaps some members of the administration who want to pretend to be defending the country against a North Korean missile attack," said Robert G. Gard, a retired Army lieutenant general and a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea from launching what U.S. officials believe is a two-stage Taepodong 2 missile continued yesterday. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a halt to test preparations. "I hope that the leaders of North Korea will listen to and hear what the world is saying," Annan said. "We are all worried."
There has been some concern in the United States that North Korea might seek to justify the missile firing as a civilian space launch. U.S. officials say even that would violate the 2002 moratorium since the technology to put satellites into orbit is easily transferable to intercontinental missiles. North Korea described its last significant test in 1998 as an effort to launch a satellite.