N. Korean envoy threatened Japan with missile launches over sanctions

North Korea’s top envoy for normalization talks with Japan said in bilateral discussions earlier this month his country would use a “strong physical response” to economic sanctions by Tokyo, sources said Sunday.

Song Il Ho gave the warning to his Japanese counterpart, Koichi Haraguchi, during informal contacts in the course of the Feb. 4-8 meetings in Beijing, the sources said.

A Japanese delegation source described Song’s remarks as an “outright threat that it would lift its freeze on launching ballistic missiles.”

North Korea has in the past issued statements saying it would consider the imposition of economic sanctions a declaration of war and would respond immediately, but Japan is reportedly concerned because the remarks this time came during high-level governmental talks.

Tokyo plans to study North Korea’s intentions carefully as the comments could be in violation of the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, in which the North expressed its intention to “maintain the moratorium on missile launching in and after 2003.”

Calls are mounting in Japan to impose economic sanctions to pressure Pyongyang into meeting demands over the abductions of Japanese nationals by the North.

During the Beijing talks, Japan demanded that North Korea return any abductees still in the country, provide concrete evidence about the fates of missing abductees and hand over the agents responsible for the abductions.

Haraguchi also explained Japan’s basic position on the abduction issue, saying the calls for economic sanctions will become stronger if there are no concrete developments, the sources said.

Song made the “physical response” remarks after Haraguchi listed the three demands, the sources said.

North Korean negotiators also suggested during bilateral security talks focusing on the country’s nuclear and missile programs that it might lift the moratorium on missile launches, they said.

North Korea has developed and test-fired Rodong ballistic missiles, which can reach most of Japan, and the even longer range Taepodong missile.

The Beijing talks, held for the first time under a new three-track format, covered the abduction issue, the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations, and Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.