WASHINGTON, July 5, 2006 (AFP) – The United States has strongly condemned North Korea’s "provocative" launch of several missiles that posed no immediate threat to US territory but warranted a diplomatic counter-offensive.
"The United States strongly condemns these missile launches… We are consulting with international partners on next steps," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said late Tuesday in a statement.
Pyongyang’s actions appear to indicate it "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," he added.
Senior US officials immediately reached out to their counterparts in China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — US partners in six-nation talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions — and were weighing an array of diplomatic options.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was hitting the phones to sound out her counterparts and Washington spearheaded a round of urgent consultations at the United Nations, where a Security Council meeting was scheduled for Wednesday.
The senior US envoy for North Korean issues, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was preparing to leave for the region on Wednesday, while South Korea’s national security adviser was due at the White House.
"You’re going to see a lot of diplomatic activity here over the next 24-48 hours," White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters on a conference call.
US officials said that the North Korean missile salvo included a long-range Taepodong 2 thought to be able to reach the United States but that it failed less than a minute into flight and was thought to have crashed, like the others, in the Sea of Japan.
"We do consider it provocative behavior," said Hadley, but "a missile that fails after 40 seconds is not a threat to the territory of the United States."
Snow said North Korea’s motives were clear.
"Regardless of whether the series of launches occurred as North Korea planned, they nevertheless demonstrate North Korea’s intent to intimidate other states by developing missiles of increasingly longer ranges.
"We urge the North to refrain from further provocative acts, including further ballistic missile launches," Snow said.
US President George W. Bush — who was celebrating his 60th birthday two days early, on the US national holiday — was briefed each time a missile was fired, said Hadley.
Bush stayed out of sight but discussed the volatile situation with Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Hadley, the White House said.
"We’ve been doing a lot of preparations for this. It wasn’t that he was surprised. I think his instinct is this just shows the defiance of the international community by North Korea," said Hadley.
The White House listed five launches, with a sixth unconfirmed, and said that North Korea had violated a missile test moratorium and perhaps also the September 2005 agreement it reached in the six-party talks.
According to US officials, the first launch was a SCUD-C at 2:33 pm (1833 GMT); then a No-dong or SCUD-C at 3:04 pm (1904 GMT); then the Taepodong-2, which lifted off at 4:01 pm (2001 GMT) but vanished less than a minute later.
These were followed by what were believed to be a SCUD that was fired at 6:12 pm (2212 GMT) and a Nodong at 6:31 pm (2231 GMT). The sixth and last testing was also of a short-range missile.
News of the launch hit the United States as it basked in its Independence Day holiday and prepared to enjoy traditional fireworks displays, and reveled in the launch of its space shuttle Discovery after two weather delays.
It also fell as Washington worked with its partners in diplomatic efforts to ensure that Iran — with North Korea, the two surviving members of the "axis of evil" that once included Iraq — does not get nuclear weapons.
"Obviously, it is a bit of an effort to get attention, perhaps because so much attention has been focused on the Iranians," said Hadley.
"In both cases, Iran and North Korea, even though the constellation of players may be a little different, the international solidarity is the same and the message that we do not want a nuclear North Korea or a nuclear weapon-armed Iran, that message is the same," he added.
US officials said the launches of the short-range missiles did not violate a unilateral moratorium on tests of longer-range weapons announced by North Korea in 1999 and reaffirmed in 2002 and 2004.
But the launch of the Taepodong was another matter. "The secretary has said the launching of this would be a provocative act and and we can safely say that that’s what it is," said the senior State Department official.