North Korea test-launches long-range missile despite U.S. warnings
TOKYO – A defiant North Korea test-fired a long-range missile Wednesday that may be capable of reaching America, but it failed seconds after launch, U.S. officials said. The North also tested four of shorter range in an exercise the White House termed “a provocation” but not an immediate threat.The audacious military tests by isolated communist nation came despite stern warnings from the United States and Japan – and carried out as the U.S. celebrated the Fourth of July and launched the space shuttle.None of the missiles made it as far as Japan. The Japanese government said all landed in the Sea of Japan between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.”We do consider it provocative behavior,” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said.President Bush has been in consultation with Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The State Department said Rice will start conferring tonight with her counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.Hadley said the long-range missile was the Taepodong-2, which failed 35 seconds after launch. Experts believe the Taepodong-2 – Korea’s most advanced missile with a range of up to 9,320 miles – could reach the United States with a light payload.The State Department said initial intelligence indicates that the four smaller missiles included a Scud and a Rodong. The Scuds are short-range and could target South Korea. The Rodong has a range of about 620 miles and could target Japan.The launch came after weeks of speculation that the North was preparing to test the Taepodong-2 from a site on its northeast coast. The preparations had generated stern warnings from the United States and Japan, which had threatened possible economic sanctions in response.”North Korea has gone ahead with the launch despite international protest,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said. “That is regrettable from the standpoint of Japan’s security, the stability of international society, and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”He said the first missile was launched at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, or about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday EDT. The two others were launched at bout 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., he said.Meanwhile, the North American Aerospace Defense Command – which monitors the skies for threats to North American security – went on heightened alert, said NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek.”There’s a lot going on,” he said. “The safety of our people and resources is our top priority.”If the timing is correct, the North Korean missiles were launched within minutes of Tuesday’s liftoff of Discovery, which blasted into orbit from Cape Canaveral in the first U.S. space shuttle launch in a year.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. It shocked the world in 1998 by firing a Taepodong missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.On Monday, the North’s main news agency quoted an unidentified newspaper analyst as saying Pyongyang was prepared to answer a U.S. military attack with “a relentless annihilating strike and a nuclear war.”The Bush administration responded by saying while it had no intention of attacking, it was determined to protect the United States if North Korea launched a long-range missile.On Monday, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns warned North Korea against firing the missile and urged the communist country to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program.The six-party talks, suspended by North Korea, involved negotiations by the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia with Pyongyang over the country’s nuclear program.The United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have taken quick steps over the past week to strengthen their missile defenses. Washington and Tokyo are working on a joint missile-defense shield, and South Korea is considering the purchase of American SM-2 defensive missiles for its destroyers.The U.S. and North Korea have been in a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program since 2002. The North claims to have produced nuclear weapons, but that claim has not been publicly verified by outside analysts.While public information on North Korea’s military capabilities is murky, experts doubt that the regime has managed to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on its long-range missiles.Nonetheless, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told U.S. lawmakers last week that officials took the potential launch reports seriously and were looking at the full range of capabilities possessed by North Korea.—AP reporters Larry Margasak in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.