SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles Wednesday, an unsettling reminder of the reclusive communist regime's ability to cause instability in the region where a standoff persists over its nuclear program.
The development underscored the dangers posed by the country's longer-range missiles and professed nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang shocked Tokyo and other nations when it test-fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan in 1998. It has since test-fired short-range missiles many times, including one launched into the Sea of Japan in May. In 2003, North Korea test-fired short-range land-to-ship missiles at least three times during heightened tensions over its nuclear program.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the U.S. government had independently confirmed that North Korea fired the two surface-to-air missiles.
Hours later, the test was also confirmed by a South Korean military intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information.
The official told The Associated Press that there had been indications of a missile launch over the past two days, including the transfer of equipment to the area of the launch site at Sabujin, just below the city of Kim Chaek on North Korea's northeast coast.
Japan's Kyodo News agency gave conflicting details about Wednesday's launches, saying a security source in China told it the missiles were fired by mistake in the direction of China and apparently landed in North Korean territory.
However, the agency also quoted a Western military source as saying the missiles were test-fired from North Korea's eastern coast toward the Sea of Japan. At least one missile landed in the sea about 60 miles northeast of the launch site, Kyodo said, citing a Japanese defense official.
"Indications are that North Korea launched two short-range missiles," McClellan said in an e-mail to reporters traveling with President Bush. "We have consistently pointed out that North Korea's missile program is a concern that poses a threat to the region and the larger international community," he said.
The White House said Wednesday's launches demonstrated the importance of six-party negotiations aimed at resolving the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
"We work closely with our allies in the region on ballistic missile defense and to maintain a strong deterrent against the threat North Korea poses," McClellan said. "We believe the six-party talks remain the way to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and deal with the threat from its missile program and activities."
Although North Korea announced a moratorium on missile tests a year later, it has since test-fired short-range missiles many times, including one launched into the Sea of Japan in May.
U.S. officials said North Korea should abide by its missile moratorium, and that its activities demonstrated the importance of getting Pyongyang to drop its boycott of six-nation talks on halting its nuclear weapons program.
"So we would call upon North Korea to abide by the moratorium concerning missile tests," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.
North Korea would be extremely hesitant to do anything to offend China, its last major benefactor, and the type of missiles reportedly fired wouldn't pose much of a threat far beyond its borders. Despite remaining technically at war with South Korea, the sides have embarked on reconciliation efforts since a 2000 summit between their leaders, and many South Koreans don't view the North as a threat.
Pyongyang recently has pursued diplomacy to resolve its nuclear standoff, sending a top diplomat to New York for a briefing Tuesday by U.S. officials on the country's alleged illicit financial activities.
The U.S. last year blacklisted a Macau bank and North Korean companies it said were involved in counterfeiting, money laundering and weapons proliferation — a move that prompted the North to boycott international arms talks. After the New York briefing, the North maintained it won't return to disarmament negotiations but said it has proposed ways to resolve the issue.
"At a time when North Korea is trying to play the diplomatic card, it wouldn't necessarily make sense for them to try and pull out the military card as well," said Jon Wolfstahl, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The commander of the U.S. military in South Korea, Army Gen. B.B. Bell, said Tuesday in Washington that reports indicated the North was "preparing to field a new intermediate-range ballistic missile which could easily reach United States facilities in Okinawa, Guam and possibly Alaska," according to prepared comments.
However, Bell noted the North Koreans had done "very little" in recent years on long-range ballistic missiles. Instead, he said officials have seen increasing work on short-range missiles that could be used on the Korean Peninsula.
Besides producing a large number of weapons, Bell said North Korea also "appears willing to sell to anyone."
It isn't known if the North has built a functioning nuclear weapon as it claims, since the country isn't believed to have performed any nuclear tests. Putting a device on a missile is even more complicated, and there's no evidence the North has done that either.
Still, experts believe the North has extracted enough plutonium from its main nuclear reactor for at least a half-dozen nuclear weapons or more — a concern that has lately been getting less attention due to the intense diplomacy surrounding the Iranian nuclear crisis.
"We're getting 24-7 coverage on Iran — which is still likely several years away from being able to produce a single nuclear weapon — and little coverage on North Korea, which any day could shut down its nuclear reactor and obtain the plutonium for what could be its 10th, 11th or 12th nuclear weapon," Wolfstahl said.