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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

North Korea Accused of Firing Missile

SEOUL, South Korea -- Conflicting reports about a North Korean short-range missile test Tuesday jangled North Asian nerves already on edge over suspicions that Pyongyang might seek to grab attention now that the U.S.-led war in Iraq is under way.

Initially, Japanese and U.S. officials said North Korea had fired a surface-to-ship missile without warning into the Yellow Sea between the Korean Peninsula and China. A South Korean intelligence source also confirmed the test, the third this year.

But Seoul then contradicted the reports about its communist neighbor, which says it believes it will be the next target after the U.S. war in Iraq is over.

"Following our initial investigation, we could not find evidence that North Korea fired a missile," a South Korean Defense Ministry official said.

The director-general of Japan's Defense Agency, Shoei Yamanaka, later retracted an earlier Japanese announcement, saying Tokyo was still trying to confirm the information.

No one was letting on why the story changed. But a military source in Japan said in February after one of the confirmed launches there had been 10 unannounced tests since September.

It was not clear why the U.S., South Korean or Japanese authorities would want to avoid announcing such tests.

Tuesday's initial reports themselves moved the financial markets in Japan and South Korea slightly. Traders are sensitive to North Korea, given its standoff with the United States over its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions and its rich rhetoric against Japan, the United States and the South Korean military.

Yamanaka did not deny or confirm that the North had fired the missile on Tuesday -- less than a week after Japan sent two spy satellites into orbit to give Tokyo its first independent opportunity to scrutinize North Korea from space.

Pyongyang denounced that launch as a "hostile act" that could set off a regional arms race.

It kept up its outspoken rhetoric against Japan on Tuesday, saying Tokyo would pay dearly if it kept helping the United States with spy flights near North Korea.

North Korea accused the U.S. military Tuesday of flying more than 220 spy flights over the peninsula last month and of conducting military exercises to prepare for an attack.

"The aerial espionage and war exercises go to clearly prove that the U.S. is going to invade the DPRK at the end of the Iraqi war," the North's KCNA news agency said. DPRK is the acronym for the state's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Washington says it is seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis but has not ruled out a military option.

There have been media reports that North Korea might be preparing for a ballistic missile test that would break deals it reached with Washington and Tokyo. Ballistic missiles could reach Japan.

The North recently announced reactivation of theYongbyon nuclear complex, saying this was to produce electricity for its stricken economy. Washington says the plant is too small for that and is more likely to be used to produce material for atomic weapons.

North Korea's edginess over Iraq has, in turn, fueled speculation in South Korean media and diplomatic circles about why North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has not been seen in public or reported about in detail since mid-February.

Some diplomatic sources in Pyongyang say he could be hunkered down watching satellite television coverage of the Iraq war while others say he could be touring military units. He could even be ill, they say. But no one knows for sure.

The closest to live action for some time came Tuesday in a mention on the North's KCNA news agency that Kim had sent a wreath to the funeral of a senior Communist Party functionary.