North Korea fired six ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan early Wednesday and another one in the evening, drawing economic sanctions from Japan and intensifying international concern about its nuclear weapons and diplomacy with the United States.
Six missiles, including what is believed to have been a long-range Taepodong-2, were test-fired at 3:30 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 7:10 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 8:20 a.m. Pyongyang launched the seventh at 5:20 p.m. and it came down at 5:30 p.m., Japanese government sources said.
The third missile was believed a Taepodong-2, fired from a base on the country’s northeastern coast. The remaining six originated in southeastern North Korea, the officials said. All of them fell into the sea off Vladivostok, Russia, they said.
Japanese officials held emergency security meetings to monitor the launches via U.S. spy satellites.
After the first launches, Tokyo leveled economic sanctions against the North, including a half-year port ban on the ferry Mangyongbong-92, which makes regular visits to Japan.
Japan later asked the U.N. Security Council to convene an urgent meeting.
“North Korea, which is said to possess nuclear weapons, is extending the range of its ballistic missiles and improving their capabilities,” Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga told reporters. “We consider it a grave problem not only for the safety of our country, but for the stability of the region.”
The launches, which began just six minutes before the Independence Day liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery in Florida, are believed to be an attempt to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table for direct bilateral talks on financial sanctions that have crippled key North Korean bank accounts in Macau.
But the incident is expected to further isolate the reclusive state, which ignored repeated warnings from the U.S., Japan, South Korea and China, five of the six nations involved in the so-called six-party talks to defuse Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.
Nukaga said the third missile, launched around 5 a.m., was believed a Taepodong-2, which has a range of 3,500 km to over 6,000 km, putting it within reach of the U.S. mainland.
U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the Taepodong-2 failed after 40 seconds in flight, and confirmed the other ones were Scud-type short-range and Nodong medium-range missiles.
“We do consider it provocative behavior,” Hadley said, calling it a “violation” of the 1999 missile-test moratorium agreed upon by North Korea after it fired a Taepodong-1 missile, part of which flew over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, in August 1998.
Hadley said Washington does not intend to be pulled into a bilateral confrontation.
Nukaga also confirmed the other five missiles were probably Scuds or Nodongs. The Scud has a range of about 600 km, while the Nodong has a range of at least 1,300 km, the Defense Agency said.Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told a hastily arranged news conference that Tokyo will consider “all possible” sanctions, including the suspension of cash transfers from Japan to North Korea.
Later in the day, Japan invoked the economic sanctions law for the first time, banning the Mangyongbong-92 for six months. It let the ferry briefly dock at Niigata at 2:30 p.m. so its 209 passengers, including 193 Korean students from Osaka who had just finished a school trip to North Korea, could disembark. The ship had anchored offshore after the launches.
The Cabinet also decided to ban North Korean officials and North Korean-registered ships from entering Japan, and to ban charter flights from the reclusive state.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso said the missile tests were a clear violation of the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, in which the North pledged to continue its launch moratorium in and beyond 2003.
Abe urged the North to “return to the spirit” of the declaration, the only road map Japan and the North have for normalizing relations.
Pyongyang’s launch preparations were spotted by Japanese and U.S. intelligence sources in late May.
A government source, declining to be named, hinted Wednesday that Tokyo had obtained information by Monday indicating the North was gearing up for military action.
Information from Kyodo added
U.S. mulls action
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Scheiffer said Wednesday “an appropriate response needs to be taken” to the missile launches earlier in the day by North Korea, adding that the U.S. government was weighing all options.
Scheiffer called the North Korean tests a “very grave issue” at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, saying the U.S. government was prepared to take steps to protect itself and “the citizens of its allies and friends.”
He called on the international community to respond with one voice and urged Pyongyang to return to the stalled six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.
Scheiffer said Washington and Tokyo were in constant communication, praising their “unprecedented” cooperation.