S. Korea, Japan Downplay Nuke Testing

Asian governments on Monday played down the significance of North Korea's latest missile test, saying it involved a short-range weapon unable to reach as far as Japan and with no link to the communist North's nuclear program.

North Korea apparently test-fired a missile into the Sea of Japan (search) on Sunday, raising new concerns about its nuclear intentions just days after a U.S. intelligence official said the secretive state had the ability to arm a missile with a nuclear warhead.

"The missile that North Korea recently fired is a short-range missile and is far from the one that can carry a nuclear weapon," Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon (search) said in an interview with South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "This isn't a case to be linked to the nuclear dispute."

Song also commented on reports that Washington warned allies that North Korea might be ready to conduct an underground nuclear test as early as June, with Song saying South Korea had received no such warning.

Song is South Korea's top envoy to the nuclear dispute.

South Korean officials have said they have not yet detected any signs to suggest that North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test.

News of the test launch first appeared in Japanese media reports, saying U.S. military officials had informed the Japanese and South Korean governments of Sunday's test launch.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) emphasized on Monday that it was a test of a short-range missile.

"This is a continuation of a series of provocative acts by North Korea," McClellan told reporters. "They only serve to further isolate North Korea. I think there is a consensus among all parties in the region that the only viable path for North Korea is to return to the six-party talks with a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear weapons program. And we will continue to seek a peaceful, diplomatic solution."

In Japan, a Defense Agency official said Monday Tokyo believes the missile flew only an extremely short distance and would not pose an immediate threat to Japan's national security. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda (search) said he believed it was part of North Korean domestic military exercises and was not aimed at Japan.

The missile is believed to be a Russian-made SS21 with a 75-mile range, or an upgraded version of the 62-mile Silkworm, Japan's Asahi newspaper said.

On Thursday, Vice Adm.Lowell Jacoby (search), director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the U.S. Senate that the North Koreans knew how to arm a missile with a nuclear weapon — a potentially significant advance for the North. He did not specify whether he was talking about a short-range or long-range missile.

North Korea has test-fired short-range missiles many times. In 2003, it test-fired short-range land-to-ship missiles at least three times during heightened tensions over its nuclear weapons program.

Sunday's test occurred at an especially worrisome time, with concerns that the North is moving forward with its nuclear weapons program. South Korean officials said last month that North Korea had shut down a nuclear reactor, possibly to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea shocked the region in 1998 by test-firing a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The North said it was an attempt to put a satellite in orbit.

U.S. and South Korean officials are more concerned about a possible North Korean test of a Taepodong-2 missile, which analysts believe is capable of reaching parts of the western United States, though there are widespread doubts about its reach and accuracy.