6 Missiles Fired by North Korea; Tests Protested
TOKYO, Wednesday, July 5 — North Korea test-fired at least six missiles over the Sea of Japan on Wednesday morning, including an intercontinental missile that apparently failed or was aborted 42 seconds after it was launched, White House and Pentagon officials said.
The small barrage of launchings, which took place over more than four hours, came in defiance of warnings from President Bush and the governments of Japan, South Korea and China. Of the launchings, which the United States and Japan condemned, intelligence officials focused most of their attention on the intercontinental missile, called the Taepodong 2, which American spy satellites have been watching on a remote launching pad for more than a month.
It is designed to be capable of reaching Alaska, and perhaps the West Coast of the United States, but American officials who tracked its launching said it fell into the Sea of Japan before its first stage burned out.
“The Taepodong obviously was a failure — that tells you something about capabilities,” Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters in a phone call on Tuesday evening in Washington. But other officials warned that even a failed launching was of some use to the North Koreans, because it will help them diagnose what went wrong with the liquid-fueled rocket.
In a statement issued late Tuesday night, the White House said the United States “remains committed to a peaceful diplomatic solution” and sought implementation of a joint statement on denuclearization issued after a meeting with North Korea in September. But it said “the North Korean regime’s actions and unwillingness to return to the talks appears to indicate that the North has not yet made the strategic decision to give up their nuclear programs.”
“Accordingly, we will continue to take all necessary measures to protect ourselves and our allies,” the White House said, offering no details.
The missiles have been the source of considerable diplomatic tension in recent weeks, because of North Korea’s declarations that it already possesses nuclear weapons. American intelligence agencies have told President Bush they believe the North has produced enough fuel for six or more weapons, but it is unclear whether they have actually used it to make nuclear devices.
However, the country is not believed to have developed a warhead small enough to fit atop one of its missiles, and it has never conducted a nuclear test, to the knowledge of American officials.
The other missiles that the North fired appeared to be a mix of short-range Scud-C missiles and intermediate-range Rodong missiles, of the kind that the North has sold to Iran, Pakistan and other nations. Those missiles also landed in the Sea of Japan.
None of the launchings were announced in advance. But the first came just minutes after the space shuttle Discovery lifted off in Florida — an event the North Koreans could monitor on television. Administration officials said they could only speculate as to whether the missile launching had been timed to coincide with the shuttle launching, or with Independence Day, but outside analysts had little doubt.
“It’s very in your face to do it on the Fourth of July,” said Ashton B. Carter, a Harvard professor who, with former defense secretary William J. Perry, had urged the Bush administration to destroy the Taepodong missile on the launching pad, advice the administration rejected.
“Hooray if it failed,” Mr. Carter said.
While the test itself was a sign of North Korea’s defiance of the United States, for the administration, the outcome was as favorable as officials could have hoped for: the North’s capacity was called into question, and the North’s enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, has now put himself at odds with the two countries that have provided him aid, China and South Korea. “Our hope is that the Chinese are going to be furious,” said one senior American official, who declined to be identified.
Another official noted that only days ago, the Chinese indicated that they were trying to put together an “informal” meeting of the long-dormant six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.
The North has boycotted the talks since September, citing American efforts to close down the banks it uses overseas.
But North Korea had apparently not responded to the Chinese invitation, and American officials said last week that the Chinese would not have made that gesture if they believed that they were about to be embarrassed by the country that they once considered a close ally.
The launching also makes it difficult for the South Koreans to continue their policy of providing aid and investment to the North, a program that has caused deep rifts with Washington. Administration officials said that Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the main negotiator with North Korea, would leave for Asia on Wednesday, and that they expected him to use the launchings to try to bring South Korea and China into the fold on imposing some kind of sanctions.
At the same time, the launching is likely to strengthen the hand of hard-liners in the Bush administration who have long argued that the six-party talks were bound to fail. They now have what one American diplomat called “a clear runway” to press for a gradually escalating series of sanctions, which some officials clearly hope will bring down Mr. Kim’s government.
But it is far from clear that China — which provides the North with its oil and much of its food — would go along with any move for sanctions.
The firing ended weeks of speculation about the intentions of Pyongyang, which had rolled out the Taepodong 2, its new long-range missile, in full view of American spy satellites, and came despite severe warnings from the United States and countries in this region that a test would entail further isolation and sanctions. The first missile was fired around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to the Japanese government.
American officials said they believe the Taepodong 2 was the third missile fired, with the U.S. Northern Command saying that it was launched at 5 a.m. on Wednesday.
American and Japanese officials immediately condemned the launchings. But American officials had never considered it a serious threat to the United States, especially because there was no evidence the missile was equipped with a warhead. Mr. Bush’s spokesman, Tony Snow, only went so far as to call the launching “provocative behavior.”
The Japanese government said it would take “severe actions” against the North, possibly including economic sanctions. Those could include shutting down the ferry service to North Korea and attempting to stem the flow of the transfer of cash to the North from Koreans in Japan, though officials acknowledge that would be difficult.
At the United Nations, John R. Bolton, the United States ambassador, was “urgently consulting” with other members of the Security Council to try to schedule a meeting of the panel, according to his spokesman, Richard A. Grenell. Later in the evening, it was announced that the Council would meet to take up the matter at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the request of Japan. Mr. Hadley acknowledged that “what we really don’t have a fix on is, you know, what’s the intention of all this, what is the purpose of all this? ” He noted it was a violation of North Korea’s previous pledges to hold to a moratorium on missile tests.
It was also unclear why North Korea fired short- and mid-range missiles, which it has tested successfully in the past and of which it is said to own several hundred.
“One theory is that they knew that there was a probability that things with the Taepodong 2 wouldn’t work, so it was good to fire off a few missiles that would actually work,” said a senior Bush administration official, who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak about this issue.
In 1998, the last time the North tested a missile outside its territory, Pyongyang fired the Taepodong 1, which flew over Japan before falling into the sea. That test set off a negative reaction in the region, especially in Japan, which responded by strengthening its military and its alliance with the United States.
Wednesday’s tests are likely to increase calls inside Japan to strengthen its missile defense efforts with the United States, and could increase support for hawkish candidates in the race to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is scheduled to retire in September.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, who is the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Koizumi and who has gained popularity in recent years by being tough on North Korea and China, said the tests were “a serious problem from the standpoint of our national security, peace and stability of the international community and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
The tests are sure to anger China — which expended considerable diplomatic prestige in pressing the North not to go ahead with the launching and to rejoin the six-nation talks — and raise doubts anew about the real extent of Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang. The Chinese foreign ministry said it had no comment to make yet on the launching.
In South Korea, whose government publicly urged the North not to test-fire but privately played down the risk, opponents of the government’s engagement policy toward the North might gain support in presidential elections next year.
Intelligence from American satellite photographs indicated in mid-June that the North was proceeding with the test-firing of the Taepodong 2 at a launching pad on North Korea’s remote east coast. Satellite photographs showed that the North Koreans had taken steps to put fuel into the missile, but the missile sat there until Wednesday morning, leading to speculation that the North was simply staging the event in order to gain attention from the United States.
American officials had suggested that they might use missile defense to shoot down the Taepodong 2 in midair. Bad weather in this region was said to have delayed the launching, because poor visibility would prevent the North from tracking its missile.
But the North contradicted expert opinion by launching its long-range missile in predawn darkness today.
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Tokyo for this article, and David E. Sanger from Vermont. Reporting was contributed by Warren Hoge from the United Nations, and by David S. Cloud, Helene Cooper and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.