By Dana Priest and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 5, 2006
North Korea test-fired at least six missiles yesterday, including its long-range Taepodong-2, senior U.S. officials said, defying strong warnings from the United States and regional powers in Asia.
The controversial long-range missile failed less than a minute after launch, falling into the Sea of Japan, along with the other, less-sophisticated missiles. Diplomatic and military officials played down any imminent threat, but Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, called the display of firepower on the Fourth of July "provocative behavior."
In addition to prompting swift condemnation in Washington and Japan, the launches set off a flurry of diplomatic consultations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began calling Asian capitals that were waking to the news, and the U.N. Security Council was set to take up the matter today. Meanwhile, a special U.S. envoy, Christopher R. Hill, was dispatched to consult with allies.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Tokyo was likely to impose economic sanctions against North Korea in response to the missile tests; Japanese authorities said they would begin by banning North Korean ships from Japanese ports for six months or more.
In Pyongyang, an official from North Korea's communist government met with Japanese reporters and acknowledged the missile launches. Japan's NHK television quoted Foreign Ministry official Lee Byong Dok as saying: "This is an issue of national sovereignty, and other countries do not have the right to judge. We are not bound by any agreement regarding missiles."
Over the past several weeks, U.S. intelligence officials had warned of a possible long-range missile test by North Korea, and the issue became the subject of increasingly acrimonious exchanges between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang's main benefactors, China and South Korea, as well as Japan and other nations had urged the North not to proceed with a test. Last night, Hadley said the launch "just shows the defiance of the international community by North Korea."
The tests could further isolate North Korea and tilt U.S. policy in favor of Bush administration hard-liners who have argued that stronger sanctions are the only way to bring North Korea back to the table in stalled disarmament talks.
In Japan, U.S. Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer told reporters that he and Japanese officials had discussed the possibility of getting the U.N. Security Council to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang.
In a nationally televised announcement in South Korea, Suh Choo Suk, senior presidential secretary for security policy, said the North's "provocative act" would deepen its isolation and affect inter-Korean ties.
The South Korean government has said it would punish Pyongyang in the event of a missile test by curbing the massive investment and humanitarian aid that has formed an integral part of its rapprochement with the North in recent years. President Roh Moo Hyun is now likely to face international and domestic pressure to follow through. A scaling back of financial assistance to the North by South Korea and China is considered key to the success of any international sanctions against Pyongyang.
North Korea last test-fired a long-range missile in 1998; it had observed a moratorium on such launches since 1999. Hadley said that although the test was a clear violation of that moratorium, it offered the United States important insight about North Korea's weapons capabilities: "The Taepodong is a failure. That tells you something about capabilities." North Korea's intentions were left unclear, he said.
"It's hard to get a sense of what they think could be achieved by this," he told reporters. "This is something we've been seeing coming for a while, so it's not a particular surprise."
The Taepodong-2 was the third of at least six missiles launched beginning at 2:33 p.m. EDT and ending four hours later. They included two short-range Scud missiles and three medium-range Nodongs, another type of Scud, Hadley said. It was the first time in recent memory that North Korea had launched so many missiles at once.
All the missiles apparently landed within 400 miles of the Japanese coast, with the last landing approximately 312 miles northwest of Japan's western city of Niigata, Japanese officials said.
U.S. surveillance observed all the launches, said an official at the Pentagon, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"None posed a threat," a Pentagon spokesman said in an e-mail account of the incident, and "no action [was] required." The Taepodong-2 missile failed after about 35 seconds, he said.
There were South Korean news reports that 10 missiles had been launched, but those reports could not be immediately confirmed.
A senior State Department official said the tests were "an affront to everybody, not just us," and that they would likely have a big effect on South Korean public opinion, which is already impatient with the flow of humanitarian assistance meant to induce the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to join the world community.
The failure of diplomacy is also likely to embarrass China. Beijing, North Korea's biggest benefactor, has called on Pyongyang to return to a new round of nuclear disarmament talks, which involve six nations and have been stalled for the past six months. China's ability to prod the North Koreans back to the table was considered a key test of Beijing's aspirations for increased diplomatic clout in the region.
There was no immediate reaction from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to the missile tests, but a North Korea specialist at People's University in Beijing said the action puts China and other nations in a difficult position. "Generally it has not changed dramatically the major elements in the game," said Shi Yin Hong. "The first casualty will be the six-sided talks. Of course it embarrasses China, but it also embarrasses the U.S. It embarrasses mostly the South Koreans."
To counter the growing missile threat from the North, the United States plans to send Japan four defensive Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile batteries to be stationed on the island of Okinawa by the end of the year.
After the tests, Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary, said: "The fact that North Korea launched these missiles despite warnings from the international community is a grave issue not only regarding Japan's security but peace and stability for the international community and non-proliferation, and we will make a stern protest and express our regret to North Korea."
The Nodong is a medium-range Scud missile. The Taepodong-2 is a multi-stage missile with a possible range of 2,175 to 2,672 miles, meaning it could hit parts of Alaska.
North Korea's 1998 test involved a three-stage missile. The first stage splashed down in the Sea of Japan, the second crossed Japan's main island of Honshu, and a third stage -- detected by U.S. intelligence only weeks later -- broke up and traveled 3,450 miles downrange, falling into the Pacific Ocean.
Many analysts agree that North Korea is years away from building a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile. Its medium- and long-range missiles also have displayed chronic problems with accuracy.
The Bush administration has increased its insistence recently that North Korea abandon its missile program, but the administration has not hinted at any form of immediate military action.
During a recent visit with Koizumi, Bush called a possible missile launch by the North "unacceptable" and said North Korean leader Kim "is just going to have to make a decision: Does he want to be isolated from the world, or is he interested in being an active participant?"
Faiola reported from Tokyo. Correspondent Maureen Fan in Beijing and researcher Meg Smith in Washington contributed to this report.