WASHINGTON – The Bush administration said Tuesday that North Korea's firing a series of missiles into the Sea of Japan was a provocation, but did not pose an immediate threat to the United States.
The administration quickly launched a diplomatic counter offensive to the missile shots, which included one capable of reaching U.S. soil, but made it clear that its response would not involve military action.
"We do consider it provocative behavior," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Hadley said it was confirmed that six missiles were fired over a four-hour period, including a long-range missile capable of reaching U.S. soil, but it failed after being airborne for 35 seconds. The short-range missiles fell into the Sea of Japan.
President Bush, who was at the White House with family and friends gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July and his 60th birthday this week, was notified of the test firings, and consulted with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"It wasn't that he (the president) was surprised because we've seen this coming for a while," Hadley said. "I think his instinct is that this just shows the defiance of the international community by North Korea."
Hadley said the White House will be engaged in a lot of diplomatic activity during the next 24 to 48 hours.
Rice planned to start conferring immediately with her counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Hadley said that Rice would discuss taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state, was being dispatched to the region and Hadley planned to meet Wednesday in Washington with his South Korean counterpart, a meeting that already had been scheduled.
The missile firings, coming as Americans celebrated Independence Day and the launching of a space shuttle, grabbed worldwide attention.
In Colorado, the North American Aerospace Defense Command on Monday had been put on heightened alert, or "Bravo-Plus" status, slightly higher than a medium threat level, in anticipation of possible activities by North Korea. NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command are responsible for defending U.S. territory.
Hadley suggested the missile launches might have been an attempt by North Korea to grab the international spotlight.
"It's very difficult to know what the North Koreans think they are doing this for," Hadley said. "Obviously, it is a bit of an effort to get attention, perhaps because so much attention has been focused on the Iranians."
White House press secretary Tony Snow emphasized that the nuclear standoff with North Korea was not a battle between the United States and the reclusive communist nation.
"This is not a U.S.-North Korea matter," Snow said.
The United States is a party to negotiations with North Korea known as the six-party talks. China, South Korea, Japan and Russia are the other players. "The appropriate thing is to pull together all the parties and figure out in a unified way the best way to proceed," Snow said.
"The North Koreans have again clearly isolated themselves," he said.
There was initial confusion at the White House over the test firings. Administration officials said North Korea launched a sixth missile test, then retracted the information, saying it could not be confirmed. It put the number at five, but later Tuesday confirmed the sixth launch.
The long-range missile is called a Taepodong-2, North Korea's most advanced missile with a range of up to 9,320 miles. It was fired at 4:01 p.m. EDT, according to U.S. monitors.
Hadley said the missile firings started with a short-range scud at 2:33 p.m. EDT and ended with a Rodong medium-range missile at 6:31 p.m. EDT.