SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea test-launched six missiles including a long-range Taepodong in an early morning barrage Wednesday that came in defiance of international warnings of retaliation. A North Korean official insisted that the country has the right to such a launch, raising concern it is preparing more missile tests.
The missiles apparently fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan, and U.S. officials said the long-range Taepodong-2 failed shortly after take-off, calling into question the technological capability of North Korea's feared ballistic missile program. Pyongyang last fired a long-range missile in 1998.
But the audacious military exercise drew immediate attention and condemnation. The North American Aerospace Defense Command monitored the launches as they progressed but soon determined they were not a threat to the United States, a spokesman said.
The political reaction was swift. The White House called the tests a "provocation," while the U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday and Tokyo warned of economic sanctions against the impoverished, communist country.
North Korea remained defiant. A North Korea foreign ministry official told Japanese journalists in Pyongyang that the regime there has an undeniable right to test missiles.
"The missile launch is an issue that is entirely within our sovereignty. No one has the right to dispute it," Ri Pyong Dok, a researcher on Japanese affairs at the North's Foreign Ministry, said on footage aired by TBS. "On the missile launch, we are not bound by any agreement."
Japanese national broadcaster NHK reported that an unidentified Foreign Ministry official in Pyongyang acknowledged the firing of the missiles, but Ri told reporters that diplomats like himself are unaware of what the military is doing.
Some feared more firings. Pyongyang could test additional missiles soon despite the international furor over Wednesday's launches, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said after making a protest via telephone to North Korea's ambassador to Canberra, Chon Jae Hong.
"We think they probably do intend to launch more missiles in the next day or two," Downer told reporters, without explaining if the possibility of more tests came up in his talk with Chon.
South Korea, separated from the North by the world's most heavily armed border, said the test launches would further deepen its neighbor's international isolation, sour public opinion in the South toward Pyongyang and hurt efforts to control weapons of mass destruction.
The tests, which came as the United States celebrated its Independence Day holiday and launched the space shuttle Discovery from Cape Canaveral, appeared timed to draw the most attention from Washington. Some speculated that Pyongyang wanted some of the spotlight focused on Iran's nuclear program.
"North Korea wants to get the U.S. to direct bilateral negotiations by using the missile card," said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute. "Timing the launch date on July 4 is an attempt to apply maximum pressure on the U.S. government."
In Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso warned of a "very high possibility" the U.N. would level economic sanctions against North Korea. Japan also protested the launches officially through Chinese capital, and banned a North Korean ferry from Japanese ports for six months.
The tests followed weeks of mounting speculation that North Korea would launch a Taepodong-2. U.S. intelligence reports indicated Pyongyang was taking steps to prepare for a launch, but the timing was unknown. North Korea refused to confirm the preparations, but insisted it had the right to such a test.
The test was likely to cast a pall over efforts to lure North Korea back to stalled six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has boycotted the negotiations to protest a U.S. crackdown on alleged North Korean counterfeiting and other financial crimes. A North Korean official said Wednesday his country would stand by that stance.
Diplomatic moves over North Korea gathered pace. U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill was to leave Washington for the region later on Wednesday, and the launches coincided with a trip by South Korea's security chief to Washington for consultations. China's vice-premier was also scheduled to go to Pyongyang next week.
The U.S. denounced the launch, but did not consider it a threat to national security, and officials vowed a diplomatic rather than a military response.
"We are urgently consulting with members of the Security Council," said John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, called the launches "a provocative act," and the White House said Pyongyang had further alienated itself from the world community.
Two U.S. State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the long-range missile was the Taepodong-2, North Korea's most advanced missile with a range of up to 15,000 kilometers 9,320 miles. Some experts believe it could reach the United States with a light payload.
The missiles all landed hundreds of miles away from Japan and there were no reports the missiles caused damage within Japanese territory, said Japanese spokesman Shinzo Abe. He said the first missile was launched at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, or about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday EDT.
North Korea's missile program is based on Scud technology provided by the former Soviet Union or Egypt, according to American and South Korean officials. North Korea started its Rodong-1 missile project in the late 1980s and test-fired the missile for the first time in 1993.
North Korea had observed a moratorium on long-range missile launches since 1999. It shocked the world in 1998 by firing a Taepodong missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.
The United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have taken quick steps over the past week to strengthen their missile defenses. Washington and Tokyo are working on a joint missile-defense shield, and South Korea is considering the purchase of American SM-2 defensive missiles for its destroyers.
The U.S. and North Korea have been in a standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program since 2002. Experts, however, doubt the regime has managed to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on its long-range missiles.