SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea hinted Wednesday that it would halt any plans to test a long-range missile if the U.S. agreed to direct talks, as a former South Korean president scrapped plans to visit the North because of its apparent moves toward a launch.
Tensions in the region have soared following intelligence reports that the North has fueled a ballistic missile believed capable of reaching U.S. territory. The U.S. and Japan have said they could consider sanctions against the impoverished country if it goes ahead.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung cited the missile crisis as the reason for canceling a trip next week to the North that could have offered a rare chance for talks to soothe regional tensions.
North Korea said in comments published Wednesday that its self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles no longer applies because it's not in direct dialogue with Washington, suggesting it would hold off on any launch if Washington agreed to new talks.
"Some say our missile test launch is a violation of the moratorium, but this is not the case," Han Song Ryol, deputy chief of North Korea's mission to the United Nations, told Yonhap news agency in an interview from New York.
"North Korea as a sovereign state has the right to develop, deploy, test fire and export a missile," he said. "We are aware of the U.S. concerns about our missile test-launch. So our position is that we should resolve the issue through negotiations."
Japan, which was shocked by a North Korean missile launch over its territory and into the sea in 1998, disputed the North's position on lifting the missile moratorium, arguing that the North committed itself to the ban in an accord with Tokyo in 2002.
"If the missile is launched, it is clear the act will violate the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo. "It will also breach promises with the international community."
Meanwhile, conditions for Kim Dae-jung's trip to the North have "become difficult," Jeong Se-hyun, a former unification minister, told a Seoul news conference. Jeong said the trip would be possible only once the missile crisis is resolved.
The South's Kim met the North's Kim Jong Il in June 2000 in the first-and-only summit between leaders of the divided Koreas. The two Kims had been expected to meet again during the scheduled four-day visit.
The meeting had raised hopes of dialogue as concerns grow over intelligence reports that the North has fueled a Taepodong-2 missile with a firing range experts estimate could be up to 9,300 miles — making it capable of reaching parts of the United States.
North Korea imposed its own moratorium in 1999 amid friendlier relations with the U.S. during the Clinton administration. During a 2002 summit with Japan, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il signed an agreement to extend the moratorium until at least 2003 — and reaffirmed the launch ban at another summit in 2004.
It was not immediately clear whether the North would consider the stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear program, which include the United States, as "dialogue" with Washington. The North has refused to return to nuclear talks since November, in anger over a U.S. crackdown on the country's alleged illicit financial activity.
Pyongyang has consistently pressed for direct dialogue with the United States, while Washington insists it will only speak to the North at the six-nation nuclear talks.
Australia, New Zealand and France have in recent days joined countries demanding that North Korea refrain from a missile launch.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the North should "listen to and hear what the world is saying. We are all worried."