WASHINGTON—Defying international calls for restraint, North Korea on Tuesday fired at least six missiles into the Sea of Japan, including a long-range projectile believed capable of reaching the United States that blew up about 35 seconds into its flight.
U.S. officials said none of the missile launches threatened U.S. territory.
The massive display of firepower by the isolated Stalinist regime came after months of failed efforts to restart six-nation talks aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic and political rewards.
The Bush administration and North Korea blame each other for the impasse, and the test-firings made chances for a resumption of the so-called six-party talks—which also involve China, Russia, South Korea and Japan—even more remote.
"The North Koreans have again clearly isolated themselves," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. "It's clear that whatever the motivation, the result is pretty obvious."
While the White House confirmed five missile launches, South Korea's quasi-official Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence sources, said North Korea launched a total of 10 missiles.
The test-firings came as official Washington prepared to celebrate Independence Day with a traditional evening fireworks display and ended a unilateral moratorium on missile tests that North Korea declared in 1999.
Briefing reporters at the White House, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the firings began at 2:33 p.m. EDT, with the launch from the Kitteryong site of a Scud C, a short-range ballistic missile designed by the former Soviet Union.
It landed in the Sea of Japan, as did a short- or medium-range missile lofted 31 minutes later from the same location on the country's southeast coast.
Hadley said that at 4:01 p.m., North Korea fired a Taepodong-2 long-range missile from a pad at the Musudan-ri site, on the northeast coast, where it had been monitored by U.S. spy satellites, aircraft and radars for several weeks.
The missile "vanished (from radar screens) less than a minute after launch," Hadley said.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the Taepodong-2, which was believed to have consisted of three stages, exploded about 35 seconds into its flight over the Sea of Japan.
The Taepodong-2 is believed to be North Korea's most advanced missile, with a range of about 9,320 miles. "The Taepodong obviously was a failure—that tells you something about capabilities," Hadley said.
Hadley said two more missiles—a short-range Scud C and a medium-range Nodong—were fired into the Sea of Japan at 6:12 p.m. and 6:31 p.m., EDT, respectively.
The launches came despite calls by China, the United States, South Korea and Japan on North Korea not to fire the Taepodong-2.
"They have basically defied the international community and gone ahead and done it anyway," said Hadley. "It's hard to get a sense of what they think could be achieved by this."
Word of the launches sent political shock waves throughout the Asia-Pacific region, especially in South Korea and Japan, which denounced the firings as a threat "to the peace and stability of international society."
President Bush held consultations with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Hadley.
Rice also spoke by telephone with her Chinese, Russian, Japanese and South Korean counterparts, and instructed Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the U.S. negotiator in the six-party talks, to depart Wednesday for consultations in the region.
"I think you're going to see a lot of diplomatic activity here over the next 24 to 48 hours," Hadley said.
North Korea agreed last September to negotiate about the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. Since then the six-nation negotiations have stalled, with North Korea refusing to return to the bargaining table following U.S. pressure that forced a bank in Macao to freeze millions of dollars in North Korean funds.
The pressure was part of a Bush administration crackdown on North Korean counterfeiting of U.S. currency and Pyongyang's hard currency profits from missile sales and alleged trafficking in illegal narcotics.
The Bush administration has insisted that the crackdown is unrelated to the six-party talks and has been urging North Korea to resume negotiations.
Some analysts said they believed that North Korea's decision to launch the missiles was a signal that its patience with the impasse was at an end and that it wants the Bush administration to give it the same energy and attention that it has been giving to negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
But, they said, its action could have the opposite effect, dealing a death-blow to the six-party talks and prompting the United States and Japan to push for punitive measures against Pyongyang in the U.N. Security Council or take them unilaterally.
"North Korea just applied shock treatment. It'll either shock the patient back to life or kill it," said Peter Beck of the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said the United States was "urgently consulting with other delegations of the Security Council on the situation."
Many experts, however, said there was little chance that the United States could persuade China, which can veto resolutions as one of the Security Council's five permanent members, to support punitive measures against North Korea.
Beijing, which is North Korea's main trading partner, is anxious to avoid taking any action that could destabilize the country, igniting a tidal wave of refugees that could swamp China's northern provinces.
North Korea's secretive government did not issue any statement about the launches. But it had turned up international tensions Monday with a vow to respond with an "annihilating" nuclear strike if its nuclear facilities were hit pre-emptively by the United States.
The missile launches are also likely to strain Sino-U.S. relations, especially among those in the Bush administration who say China has done too little to halt North Korea's military programs. Most of North Korea's energy supplies come through China.
"This puts Chinese credibility, and their capacity to influence North Korea, on the line," Beck said. He added that North Korea apparently felt that it could get away with the missile launches without provoking China, its only major foreign ally.
"It's clear that they didn't get a red light from China," Beck said.
(Landay reported from Washington, Johnson from Shenzhen, China, and Doi from Tokyo. McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Chris Adams and Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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