WORLD / America

US weighs shootdown of DPRK missile
Updated: 2006-06-21 08:41

The Bush administration is weighing responses to a possible North Korean missile test that include attempting to shoot it down in flight over the Pacific, defense officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

As they do not know much about North Korea's missile operations, U.S. officials say they must consider the possibility that an anticipated test would turn out to be something else, such as a space launch or even an attack. Thus, the Pentagon is considering the possibility of attempting an interception, two defense officials said, even though it would be unprecedented and is not considered the likeliest scenario.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at a joint news conference with Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel in Washington June 19, 2006. [Reuters]
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at a joint news conference with Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel in Washington June 19, 2006. [Reuters]
The officials agreed to discuss the matter only on condition of anonymity because of its political sensitivity.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not say whether the unproven multibillion-dollar U.S. anti-missile defense system might be used in the event of a North Korean missile launch. That system, which includes a handful of missiles that could be fired from Alaska and California, has had a spotty record in tests.

Although shooting down a North Korean missile is a possibility, the Pentagon also must consider factors that would argue against such a response, including the risk of shooting and missing and of escalating tensions further with North Korea.

Even if there were no attempt to shoot down a North Korean missile, it would be tracked by early warning satellites and radars, including radars based on ships near Japan and ground-based radars in Alaska and California.

Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a U.S. shootdown of a North Korean missile on a test flight or a space launch would draw "very strong international reaction" against the United States. He saw only a small chance that the U.S. would attempt a shootdown.

Signs of North Korean preparations to launch a long-range ballistic missile, possibly with sufficient range to reach U.S. territory, have grown in recent weeks, although it is unclear whether the missile has been fully fueled. U.S. officials said Monday the missile was apparently fully assembled and fueled, but others have since expressed some uncertainty.

Bush administration officials have urged the North Koreans publicly and privately not to conduct the missile test, which would end a moratorium in place since 1999. That ban was adopted after Japan and other nations expressed outrage over an August 1998 launch in which a North Korean missile flew over northern Japan.

At the time of the 1998 launch, the United States had no means of shooting down a long-range missile in flight. Since then, the Pentagon has developed a rudimentary system that it says is capable of defending against a limited number of missiles in an emergency with a North Korean attack particularly in mind.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, says the Pentagon has spent $91 billion on missile defense over the past two decades.
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