TOKYO – North Korea declared Tuesday it has a right to carry out long-range missile tests, despite international calls for the communist state to refrain from launching a rocket believed capable of reaching the United States.
The bristling statement from North Korea to Japanese reporters in Pyongyang came as France and the U.N. secretary-general raised the alarm over what are believed to be the reclusive nation's preparations for a test of the Taepodong-2, with a range of up to 9,300 miles.
The North's declaration prompted Japan and South Korea to pledge to cooperate to stop Pyongyang's apparent plans for a launch.
The United States and Japan have said they could consider sanctions against the impoverished state and push the U.N. Security Council for retaliatory action should the launch go ahead. Pyongyang demonstrated its ability to hit Tokyo when it fired a missile over northern Japan into the Pacific in 1998.
"This issue concerns our autonomy. Nobody has a right to slander that right," the Kyodo News agency quoted North Korean Foreign Ministry official Ri Pyong Dok as telling Japanese reporters.
Kyodo also quoted Ri as saying the North is not bound by the joint declaration at international nuclear disarmament talks last year or a missile moratorium agreed to by Tokyo and Pyongyang in 2002. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reaffirmed the moratorium — in place in practice since 1999 — in 2004.
Ri told reporters his remarks represented Pyongyang's official line on the matter, but refused to comment on whether the North would push ahead with the missile test, saying it was inappropriate for a diplomat to give further information, Kyodo said.
The harsh rhetoric could sour hopes that North Korea might scuttle the test in the face of international criticism. But it was unclear whether the comments indicated a willingness to go ahead with the launch, or reflected North Korea's penchant for threatening bluster as a bargaining tactic.
The international campaign to block the launch widened Tuesday, with the French government and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for a halt to test preparations.
"I hope that the leaders of North Korea will listen to and hear what the world is saying. We are all worried," said Annan, who was in Paris. He called for all parties in the standoff to avoid an escalation of tensions.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking after talks with Annan, said any North Korean missile test must draw a "firm and just" international response.
China, North Korea's staunchest ally, urged calm.
"We hope that under the current circumstances, relevant parties can do more in the interest of regional stability and peace," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.
Information on the test preparation remained scant and contradictory Tuesday. Especially unclear is whether Pyongyang has completed injecting fuel into the missile — a move some experts consider irreversible and a clear sign the country intends to launch.
Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported Tuesday that U.S. satellite images suggest the North was still fueling its missile. And a U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that U.S. intelligence indicated North Korea had finished fueling.
However, Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Jinen Nagase said Tuesday that Japan could not confirm that fueling was complete. And South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, believes North Korea hasn't finished because the 40 tanks seen around a launch site weren't enough to fuel a 65 ton missile, Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said it appeared some rockets had been assembled, but the North's intentions were unclear. There were no reports of a launch by Tuesday evening, and the North is considered unlikely to launch at nighttime.
Ban agreed in a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, to cooperate to prevent a North Korean launch, Japan's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
Amid the rising tensions, the United States staged war games near Guam in the western Pacific with 22,000 troops and three aircraft carriers. Commanders said the maneuvers were not aimed at any particular country.
The test fears have been especially high in Japan, a firm U.S. ally with no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. The two countries are at odds over the North's abduction of Japanese citizens, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development and wartime grievances.
The North's previous test of a long-range missile shocked Japan and prompted it to accelerate work with Washington on a joint missile defense system. The threat of North Korean aggression has also been prime motivation for Japan's increasing military cooperation with the United States.
Washington also kept up the pressure on Pyongyang. The U.S. ambassador to South Korea conveyed the Bush administration's concerns to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il next week.
Meanwhile, the North lashed out at the United States Tuesday for its missile defense plans, which it said would "touch off a space war in the long run," the North's Minju Joson newspaper wrote in a commentary, according to the country's Korean Central News Agency.