North Korea Launches Seven Missiles on U.S. Holiday

In Seoul, a man watches a broadcast of a missile launch by the North.
In Seoul, a man watches a broadcast of a missile launch by the North. (By Ahn Young-joon -- Associated Press)
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By Blaine Harden and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 5, 2009

TOKYO, July 4 -- Taunting the United States on its birthday, North Korea fired seven missiles into the Sea of Japan early Saturday in a provocative move that some experts said might have been intended to discourage deployment of new missile defenses against the communist state.

The Independence Day launch was the North's biggest one-day barrage of test missiles in three years. It drew strong criticism from countries in the region, as well as renewed resolve from the Obama administration to punish Pyongyang for its continued defiance of U.N. resolutions.

The seven rockets splashed harmlessly into the sea, and U.S. analysts said all appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles capable of striking targets less than 350 miles away. Some independent experts said the firing of multiple missiles may have been intended as a warning to adversaries that North Korea would seek to overwhelm their missile shields.

"The chief challenge with missile defense is coping with large numbers of missiles, and the firing of seven has a saturation quality to it," said Dennis M. Gormley, a former member of numerous military and intelligence advisory boards and a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington. "It at least raises the specter of these kinds of attacks."

Pyongyang made no comment Saturday about the missiles. But launches had been expected this weekend because North Korea had warned ships to avoid waters near its east coast through July 10.

In Washington, the Obama administration reacted with dismay to the latest in a series of North Korean provocations that included an underground nuclear test on Memorial Day.

"This type of North Korean behavior is not helpful," said State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth. "What North Korea needs to do is fulfill its international obligations and commitments."

A senior administration official predicted the tests will lead to the further isolation of North Korea, which was hit with new U.N. Security Council sanctions last month after its May 25 nuclear test. "It's not going to change anything, and we're going to continue to implement these sanctions in the resolution," said the official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

The sanctions have infuriated the government of Kim Jong Il, which responded to them by vowing last month never to give up nuclear weapons and to start making more with enriched uranium.

When challenged, North Korea has a history of rattling its military hardware. It fired four short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast on Thursday, when senior U.S. diplomats were in Beijing trying to persuade the Chinese to be more diligent in enforcing sanctions against the North.

After North Korea's warning to local shipping traffic, there had been speculation that it might attempt a longer-range missile test, possibly firing one of its 4,000-mile-range Taepodong-2 missiles in the direction of Hawaii. But U.S. analysts said Saturday there are no indications that such a launch is imminent.

Such an act would have been far more provocative, said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "In that sense, at least, today's launch could have been far worse," he said.

North Korea's neighbors sharply condemned the new launches. South Korea's foreign ministry called them a "provocative act" that violates several Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from all ballistic missile activity. The South Korean military said it is "fully ready to counter any North Korean threats and provocations based on strong South Korea-U.S. combined defense posture." The U.S. military has about 28,500 troops in South Korea.

Military officials in both countries told reporters that the North Korean missiles appeared to variants of the Scud, a Soviet-era weapon with a range of about 300 miles.

Government officials quoted in Japanese and South Korean news accounts said the missiles may have been Nodongs, a modified, longer-range Scud. North Korea has more than 200 of these missiles, which are capable of striking nearly all of Japan. The Japanese government considers them a serious threat, and it spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years buying two U.S.-made antimissile defense systems.

North Korea's recent belligerence, in the view of many analysts, is related to a succession underway in Pyongyang. Kim is 67 years old and has appeared frail since suffering a stroke last summer.

Warrick reported from Washington. Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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