North Korea test-fired seven missiles into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday in defiance of international calls, direct and indirect, that it refrain from such a reckless action. The launches not only provoked the international community but also push Pyongyang into further isolation, which won’t make conditions any better for the people of North Korea.

North Korea cannot justify firing so many missiles. By showing off its missile capabilities, though, it probably hopes to coax the United States into bilateral talks with it on matters such as its nuclear weapons program and the financial sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on it. But it is clear that such adventurism won’t work, since the missile launches have only prompted the U.S. and other nations to move to penalize North Korea.

The missile tests make it more difficult for Japan and North Korea to resume bilateral talks aimed at eventually normalizing the two countries’ relations. Thus it is all the more important that Japan try to revive the six-party talks on the nuclear issue, which have been stalled since last November — when North Korea cited U.S. financial sanctions for refusing to resume them.

Japan reacted quickly to the missile tests. Taking the position that they violated the September 2002 joint Pyongyang Declaration, in which North Korea agreed to continue a moratorium on missile launches, Japan imposed a set of sanctions, including a half-year ban on the entry into Japanese ports of the Mangyongbong-92 ferry, the only direct passenger link between the two countries, plus prohibitions on North Korean officials and chartered flights entering Japan. Japan may even curb the flow of foreign currencies into North Korea via financial institutions operating in Japan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe correctly observed that North Korea’s test-firing of the missiles “is a grave issue with regard not only to Japan’s security but also to peace and stability for the international community and nonproliferation regime (for nuclear weapons).”

The missile tests this time came almost eight years after North Korea fired a Taepodong-1 missile, part of which flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean. On Wednesday, North Korea, launched six missiles from around 3:30 a.m. to 8:20 a.m., followed by the seventh around 5:20 p.m. Within about 10 minutes of firing, each missile landed in the Sea of Japan, 530 km to 800 km north-northwest of Niigata Prefecture. The third missile, launched around 5 a.m., is believed to have been a Taepodong-2 long-range missile reportedly capable of reaching Alaska. It failed after about 40 seconds in flight. The other missiles were Scud-C missiles with a range of several hundred km and Nodong medium-range missiles with a range of about 1,300 km.

South Korea, which has pushed rapprochement with the North, condemned Pyongyang’s action. Russia joined in the criticism, saying the missile firings complicated the situation surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program. China declined comment at first, but said later it was watching the situation closely and urged the countries concerned to remain coolheaded.

The U.S. called the test-firings on the Fourth of July “provocative behavior” and a sign of “defiance of the international community.” It said, however, that the missiles did not pose any threat, apparently because the Taepodong-2 missile failed and the other missiles’ ranges were relatively short. But this doesn’t mean an easy time awaits North Korea. The U.S. will not resort to military action but seeks to do its utmost through diplomacy to counter Pyongyang’s moves. It has already started talks with Japan, China, Russia and South Korea.

The missile tests are likely to affect public opinion in South Korea, and Seoul may opt to curb the country’s massive investment in the North as well as humanitarian aid.

At the request of Japan, the United Nations Security Council has begun to debate what measures should be taken against North Korea. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush have agreed to cooperate in adopting a tough resolution against North Korea.

When the Taepodong-1 missile was launched over Japan into the Pacific Ocean in 1998, the Security Council ended up issuing a press statement two weeks after the launch because of Chinese opposition to stronger action. This time it is hoped that China, which has chaired the six-nation talks and can exert influence in prodding North Korea back to the table, will act responsibly.

North Korea’s missile firings challenge the international community. They also offer a chance to join hands in bringing the country back to the six-nation talks, although the parties concerned must move cautiously to avoid increasing tension.

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