North Korea hinted Wednesday that it would halt plans to test a long-range missile if the US 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 was fueling a ballistic missile believed capable of reaching US territory. The US 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 from 1999 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 South Korea's 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 US concerns about our missile test-launch. So our position is that we should resolve the issue through negotiations."
Pyongyang has consistently pressed for direct dialogue with the United States, while Washington insists it will only speak to the North at six-nation nuclear talks. The North has refused to return to nuclear talks since November, in anger over a US crackdown on the country's alleged illicit financial activity.
North Korea shocked the world in 1998 when it fired a long-range missile that flew over northern Japan into the Pacific. Pyongyang said that launch was intended to place a satellite into orbit, and a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan with links to the communist regime said Wednesday the country could conduct a second satellite launch anytime.
"It's a very legitimate exercise of (the North's) sovereignty to become a satellite-possessing country," the Choson Sinbo newspaper said, according to its Web site seen in Seoul.
North Korea imposed its missile 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.
Japan disputed the North's position on lifting the moratorium.
"If the missile is launched, it is clear the act will violate" the 2002 agreement, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said in Tokyo. "It will also breach promises with the international community."
Thomas Scheiffer, the US ambassador to Japan, said Wednesday that Washington has advanced means of tracking a North Korean missile launch, but he wouldn't elaborate.
In Washington, defense officials told The Associated Press that the White House was weighing responses to a missile launch that could include attempting to shoot it down while in flight over the Pacific. However, such a move was considered unlikely.
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 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) - making it capable of reaching parts of the United States.
Cloudy skies and a forecast for rain over North Korea's launch site Wednesday cast doubt over an immediate launch, said Son Tae-sung, an official at the South's Korea Meteorological Administration.
Australia, New Zealand and France have in recent days joined countries demanding that North Korea refrain from a missile launch.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the North should "listen to and hear what the world is saying. We are all worried."