(AP) - North Korea on Thursday publicly acknowledged for the first time that it had tested missiles and vowed to continue launching them, threatening to "take stronger physical actions" against opponents of the tests.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry issued its statement through the state-run Korean Central News Agency one day after the country test-fired at least seven missiles, including an abortive launch of a long-range Taepodong-2. All the missiles apparently fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan, but the launches drew international condemnation, reports Trend.
Japan, backed by the U.S. and Britain, circulated a U.N. Security Council resolution in New York on Wednesday that would ban any country from transferring funds, material and technology that could be used in North Korea's missile and weapons of mass destruction programs.
But North Korea said the missile launches were part of its military's regular drills to strengthen self-defense, and it had a legal right to carry them out.
"Our military will continue with missile launch drills in the future as part of efforts to strengthen self-defense deterrent. If anyone intends to dispute or add pressure about this, we will have to take stronger physical actions in other forms," the statement said, without elaborating.
Major South Korean newspapers reported Thursday that North Korea has three or four more missiles on launch pads ready to be fired. The North also barred people from sailing into some areas off the coast until July 11 in a possible sign of preparations for additional launches, said Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea's largest dailies.
"There is a possibility that North Korea will fire additional missiles," South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung was quoted by the Yonhap news agency as telling lawmakers, citing images of equipment going in and out of the launch sites.
The missiles are either short- or medium-range, Chosun Ilbo reported. Japan said there were no immediate signs of another attempt to launch a long-range Taepodong-2 missile.
On Wednesday, splits emerged among the critics of the North's testing program.
China and Russia resisted Japan's attempt in the Security Council to impose sanctions against North Korea, saying only diplomacy could halt the isolated regime's nuclear and rocket development programs. China, the North's closest ally, and Russia, which has been trying to re-establish Soviet-era ties with Pyongyang, said they favor a weaker council statement without any threat of sanctions. Both countries hold veto power in the council, making sanctions unlikely.
China and Russia are clearly concerned that a U.N. demand for such measures would only delay a return to six-party talks aimed at persuading the country to abandon its nuclear program. China and Russia are part of the talks along with North and South Korea, the United States and Japan.
In a possible sign that Moscow's and Beijing's position may carry the day, President Bush addressed the issue in a subdued manner without the harsh warnings that he had issued as recently as last week when he said that a missile launch would be unacceptable.
Bush said Wednesday that the failure of North Korea's long-range missile test does not lessen the need to push the communist regime to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Bush spoke by phone to Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and they agreed to cooperate in pushing for a U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea, officials said. The president also spoke to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and they agreed to cooperate on diplomacy, a South Korean official said.
"One thing we have learned is that the rocket didn't stay up for very long," Bush said about the Taepodong-2 missile that failed 42 seconds after liftoff Tuesday. "It tumbled into the sea."
"It doesn't diminish my desire to solve this problem," he said in Washington.
In its statement, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said the launches were unrelated to the six-party talks, and that Pyongyang was still committed to the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The statement accused the U.S. of being hostile to the communist regime, and blamed Washington for blocking progress at the talks with its financial restrictions.
"Under these conditions, it is clear to every one that there is no need for us to hold off on missile launches," it said.
The failure of the Taepodong-2 missile the object of intense international attention for more than a month suggested a catastrophic failure of the rocket's first, or booster, stage. A working version of the intercontinental missile could potentially reach the United States with a light payload. The North also fired six shorter-range missiles on Wednesday
Tokyo responded swiftly by barring North Korean officials from traveling to Japan, and banned one of its trading boats from entering Japanese waters for six months.
In South Korea, separated from the North by the world's most heavily armed border, officials said the tests would affect inter-Korean initiatives such as the dispatch of food and fertilizer from the South to the North, but stressed that diplomacy was the best way to solve the crisis.
Lee Jong-seok told the National Assembly in a hearing Thursday that Cabinet-level meetings between the two Koreas scheduled for next week should go ahead, and that Seoul would press ahead with cross-border projects with North Korea.
Both Japan and South Korea are within range of North Korean missiles.
The Security Council held an emergency session at Japan's request, and council experts met late Wednesday for about 1 1/2 hours to discuss the draft resolution. Experts will meet again Thursday morning and council ambassadors may then meet in the afternoon to review progress, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the session was closed.
The draft resolution proposed by Japan and obtained by The Associated Press would condemn North Korea's ballistic missile launches and deplore its role as "the world's leading proliferator of ballistic missiles and related technology." It would demand that Pyongyang immediately halt "the development, testing, deployment and proliferation of ballistic missiles and reconfirm its moratorium on missile launching."
If approved, the council would strongly urge North Korea to return immediately to the six-party talks "without precondition" and stop all nuclear-related activities with the aim of completely dismantling its nuclear programs, including both plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment.
China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya and Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin both noted that after North Korea shocked Japan in August 1998 by blasting a Taepodong-1 missile over its territory and into the Pacific Ocean, the Security Council reacted merely with a press statement.
Japan's U.N. Ambassador Kenzo Oshima called Wednesday's launches "far more serious."
North Korea's "possible combination of nuclear weapons with missile development and testing" is unacceptable and requires "quick, strong action" by the Security Council, he said.
Churkin said that while "a strong and clear message is needed to North Korea," the goal should be a resumption of six-party talks, which have been suspended since last September, and a diplomatic solution.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the council must send a "strong and unanimous signal" that North Korea's missile test-launch was unacceptable.
The initial council discussion "was very interesting because no member defended what the North Koreans have done," he said. "I think there is support for sending a clear signal to Pyongyang."