North Korea test-launches long-range missile despite international protests

Published 7:06 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2006

North Korea test-fired a seventh missile Wednesday, intensifying the furor that began when the reclusive regime defied international protests by launching a long-range missile and at least five shorter-range rockets earlier in the day.

The missiles, all of which apparently fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan, provoked international condemnation, the convening of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and calls in Tokyo for economic sanctions against the impoverished communist regime.

North Korea remained defiant, with one official arguing it had the right to such launches. The tests and the impenitent North Korean attitude raised fears that further firings could follow.

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North Korea’s state-run media did not mention the missile tests but a commentator on its Korean Central Broadcasting Station said the country’s “military and people are fully prepared to cope with any provocation and challenge by U.S. imperialists.”

“Maintenance of peace in our country is entirely made possible by our strong war deterrent,” the announcer said, adding that without it, the North would have suffered a “cruel nuclear disaster.”

An official at the South Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that North Korea had tested a seventh missile that was either short- or medium-range. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of agency rules.

Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported that the missile landed six minutes after launch, but did not say where. The chief of Russia’s general staff said that Russian tracking systems showed that Pyongyang may have launched up to 10 missiles during the day, the Interfax news agency reported.

U.S. officials said North Korea fired a long-range Taepodong-2 early in the day, but that it failed shortly after takeoff, calling into question the technological capability of North Korea’s feared ballistic missile program. Pyongyang last fired a long-range missile in 1998.

The bold firings came under close international scrutiny of the North’s missile launch facilities. 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.

Some feared more firings. Pyongyang could test more missiles soon despite the international outcry, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said after making a protest via telephone to North Korea’s ambassador.

“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 ambassador Chon Jae Hong.

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 the Fourth of July and launched the space shuttle Discovery, appeared timed to draw the most attention from Washington. Some speculated that Pyongyang wanted some of the spotlight that was 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.”

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 Japanese television network TBS. “On the missile launch, we are not bound by any agreement.”

Japanese broadcaster NHK reported that an unidentified Foreign Ministry official in Pyongyang acknowledged the tests, but Ri told reporters that diplomats such as himself are unaware of what the military is doing.

In Russia, Interfax quoted the army chief of staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky as saying the number of missiles fired by North Korea could be higher than the six cited by the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

“According to various data, 10 missiles were launched. Some say that these were missiles of various classes; however, some claim that all missiles were intercontinental,” Baluyevsky was quoted as saying in the Russian Far East city of Chita.

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 the Chinese capital, and banned a North Korean ferry from Japanese ports for six months.

He also said North Korea may face harsher sanctions from Tokyo depending on Pyongyang’s actions. Japan has already prohibited North Korean officials from traveling to the country and has barred a trade boat from entering Japanese waters.

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 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.

China, North Korea’s neighbor and most important ally, urged all parties to remain calm.

“We are seriously concerned with the situation which has already happened,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a statement on the ministry’s Web site.

“We hope that all the relevant sides … do more things which are conducive to peace and stability … and not take any actions to escalate and complicate the situation,” the statement said.

Two 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 9,320 miles. Some experts believe it could reach the United States with a light payload.

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.