North Korea defies US with missile tests

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The Independent Online

North Korea sent a defiant signal to its neighbours and the US when it test-fired a volley of missiles in the early hours of today.

Officials in Japan and the US said the reclusive state had launched up to six test missiles and that all had come down in the Sea of Japan. Four of the missiles were shorter-range Scud-type weapons but officials said that two of them were apparently a long-range Taepodong-2 model. One of these missiles - with a potential estimated range of 3,500 miles - reportedly failed less than 40 seconds after being launched.

"North Korea has gone ahead with the launch despite international protest," said Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe. "That is regrettable from the standpoint of Japan's security, the stability of international society, and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Japan said it "strongly protested" against North Korea's actions. The government was to hold a security meeting to discuss the move while the South Korean government said it was also calling a national security meeting.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said the United States was "urgently consulting" other Security Council members. A White House spokesperson said staff were in urgent consultations and said the test firing was a "provocation".

In truth both Japan and the US, and the wider international community, had long been expecting a missile launch. The air force complex at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, responsible for domestic defence had been put on heightened alert. In addition, the US claimed it had even activated its missile interceptor system in readiness, though with a history of decidedly mixed test results it is unclear what sort of protection this system would offer.

Last night no one seriously claimed the tests represented a genuine threat to the US and media reports claimed that US intelligence had been able to monitor many of the missile launches in real time. A State Department official said the US envoy for North Korea would probably be dispatched to the region later today.

The last time North Korea test-fired a missile was in 1998 when it fired one over Japan, rattling both international financial markets and Japanese nerves. It agreed with Japan to a moratorium on missile tests in 2002 and this was reaffirmed two years ago.

Last year, North Korea announced that it already possessed nuclear weapons though experts believe it is a long way from developing a system that is capable of delivering such a payload.

In recent weeks President Bush and the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have warned North Korea against test-firing a long-range missile. The Japanese leader warned that Japan would "apply various pressures" though he did not give details.

Away from the rhetoric, Korea had been participating in the six-party talks aimed at curbing the country's nuclear activities, revealed in 2002, though these discussions stalled last year. North Korea has continued to question Washington's motives and claims it is seeking regime change, even while it participates in the talks, along with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Some observers have accused the US of failing to offer North Korea sufficient incentives to act.