Tokyo, July 5 (Reuters): North Korea today test-fired a barrage of missiles, including a long-range weapon said to be capable of reaching Alaska, ratcheting up tensions in north Asia and drawing international condemnation.
The UN Security Council considered imposing sanctions on North Korea’s weapons programme after the missile tests.
Japan, backed by the US and Britain prepared a resolution demanding that nations withhold all funds, goods and technology that could be used for North Korea’s missile programme. But Russia said it opposed sanctions and would prefer a statement instead of a resolution as the outcome of the meeting.
At least six missiles were launched early in the morning and a seventh some 12 hours later, officials in Japan and South Korea said. Russia said North Korea fired 10 missiles, but the report from a senior general could not be immediately confirmed.
The long-range Taepodong-2 missile apparently failed 40 seconds into its flight, US officials said. Japanese and South Korean officials said the missiles fell into the sea separating the Korean peninsula from Japan.
Experts say the Taepodong-2 has a possible range of 3,500-4,300 km.
The US warned North Korea against any more provocative acts, and said Washington would take necessary measures to protect itself and its allies. “The United States strongly condemns these missile launches and North Korea’s unwillingness to heed calls for restraint from the international community,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
South Korea’s military stepped up its alert level after the launch, Yonhap news agency reported.
The two Koreas are technically still at war more than half a century after the inconclusive truce which halted the 1950-53 Korean conflict. Some 30,000 US troops remain in South Korea under a mutual defence treaty.
The European Union condemned North Korea’s missile launches as “provocative”, while Nato secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said they were a “serious threat” .
US national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the multiple firings might have been an attempt by Pyongyang to steal the spotlight away from Iran, which has been the main focus of US nuclear diplomacy in recent months.
But like many US officials, Hadley said it was impossible to be sure about Pyongyang’s motives.
North Korea, whose government pays close attention to symbolic gestures, chose to launch the missiles as the US was marking its July 4 Independence Day.
“It got everybody’s attention on the Fourth of July. (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-Il can set off fireworks, too,” said John Pike, director of the security website GlobalSecurity.org.
Japan said it would consider immediate economic sanctions against North Korea. The government banned visits by North Korean ferries for six months.
”Whatever North Korea seeks to achieve or is speculating, nothing positive for North Korea will come out from this,” Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.
The Japanese yen and the South Korean won both slipped against the dollar on the launch news, with Tokyo and Seoul stock markets also lower. In Seoul, the government said South Korean authorities would take action if necessary.
Russia, which is a party to six-way talks on North Korea's nuclear programme, condemned the launch. Tokyo also called on Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks, which have been stalled since November.
The other participants in the talks are the United States, China, Japan and the two Koreas.
North Korean media made no mention of the multiple launches, Japanese reporters in Pyongyang said. Television channels had no programming on Wednesday morning, they said, and state radio led its bulletins on Kim Jong Il's visit to a tyre factory.
Experts say the Taepodong-2 has a possible range of 3,500-4,300 km (2,190-2,690 miles).
A U.S. State Department official told Reuters the long-range missile had failed 40 seconds after it was launched. A senior South Korean security official said the Taepodong-2 had splashed down in the sea off the peninsula's east coast.
Experts say that Pyongyang is developing long-range missiles to have the capability one day to deliver a nuclear bomb, but that it is years away from acquiring such a weapons system. (Additional reporting by Jim Wolf, Paul Eckert, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Jack Kim and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul)