SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea said Wednesday it has the right to develop missiles, increasing fears it might resume test-launching long-range missiles while the United States is focused on Iraq.
Pyongyang has fired two short-range missiles off its east coast in the past weeks, raising tensions in a region already roiled by a standoff over its suspected nuclear weapons programs.
"The DPRK's missile program is of purely peaceful nature and does not pose a threat to anyone," Pyongyang's state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The commentary, carried by the North's official news agency KCNA, said it was the communist nation's "sovereign right to go ahead with its missile program."
Japanese media reported last week that North Korea appeared to be making final preparations to test-launch a ballistic missile, although government officials in the region have denied having strong evidence that a test is imminent.
With the United States focused on Iraq, experts say North Korea might use the opportunity to test long-range missiles or reprocess spent nuclear fuel to make atomic bombs. That would be viewed as an attempt to force Washington into direct negotiations over its nuclear programs.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned against missile tests and said fuel reprocessing would make it harder to find a peaceful solution to the dispute.
Washington says if North Korea begins reprocessing its spent fuel, it could have enough plutonium for several atomic bombs within months.
On Tuesday, North Korea's foreign ministry attacked Japan's plan to launch spy satellites later this month, saying it poses a "grave threat" to the isolated communist state.
North Korea warned that it too has the right to launch satellites.
North Korea shocked the region in 1998 when it launched what it called a satellite. Its neighboring countries said it was the test launch of North Korea's Taepodong-1 ballistic missile and that it flew over Japan and landed into the Pacific.
Officials are more concerned about a possible North Korean test of a Taepodong-2 missile. Analysts believe that missile is capable of reaching parts of the United States, though there are widespread doubts about its reach and accuracy.
Japan plans to launch two reconnaissance satellites -- its first ever -- into space on March 28.
North Korea says the spy satellites violate the spirit of a joint declaration signed by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang last year.
Tokyo currently has little satellite intelligence-gathering capabilities of its own and relies heavily on the United States.
The Korean nuclear crisis flared in October, when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted having a uranium program. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments; the North retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting a nuclear reactor.
Chinese President Hu Jintao talking with President Bush by telephone, urged dialogue with North Korea "as soon as possible," China's Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday.