North Korea fires short-range missiles

An image from North Korean television on April 9 shows leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.
North Korea fired two short-range missiles from its east coast Tuesday — a day after conducting a nuclear test — South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing a South Korean official.

“The North is continuing its saber-rattling,” the unnamed official said. The firings came a day after the reclusive communist state conducted a nuclear test and fired another short-range missile. “We should be clear that these are short-range missiles. They are in the realm of anti-ship or anti-aircraft missiles, not missiles designed to target cities or other country population centers,” said analyst Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, which describes itself as an independent non-profit group committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. The U.N. Security Council condemned Monday’s nuclear test as a “clear violation” of international law. Even the North’s closest ally criticized its actions. China said North Korea “disregarded the opposition of the international community.” “The Chinese government expresses firm opposition to this,” a statement from Beijing’s foreign ministry said. It urged Pyongyang to return to the talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program, abide by its existing commitments and “cease any actions that might cause the situation to deteriorate further.” North Korea agreed in 2008 to scrap its nuclear weapons program — which it said had produced enough plutonium for about seven atomic bombs — in exchange for economic aid. But the deal foundered over verification and disclosure issues, and the North expelled international inspectors and announced plans to restart its main nuclear reactor. At the United Nations, Security Council members took about an hour Monday to express their unanimous condemnation of the move. Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin called Monday’s test “very serious” and said it “needs to have a strong response.” Watch how Pyongyang has used nuclear tests to gain concessions »

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In a statement authorized by the council members, Churkin said the test was a “clear violation” of previous resolutions calling for North Korea to avoid provocative steps such as nuclear weapons or missile tests. U.S. ambassador Susan Rice said Washington will seek “strong measures” against North Korea. “The U.S. thinks that this is a grave violation of international law and a threat to regional and international peace and security,” she said. France and Japan also signaled support for new sanctions against North Korea, already one of the most isolated nations in the world. North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006. Pyongyang had threatened last month to carry out a new test after the Security Council condemned its test-firing of a long-range rocket and extended economic sanctions against the nation, which is in dire need of food and energy assistance. Monday’s blast, conducted just before 10 a.m. (9 p.m. Sunday ET) showed up on seismographs with the punch of a magnitude 4.7 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Russia estimated the force of Monday’s blast at 10 to 20 kilotons, in the neighborhood of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of World War II and far larger than the 2006 test. Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said only that the latest test was safely conducted “on a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology of its control.” The North Koreans followed up with a short-range missile launch as well, according to the White House. Watch more analysis on the nuclear test » Less than three weeks ago, the White House announced a new diplomatic effort to restart the stalled six-party nuclear talks. The discussions involve China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Several analysts said the test could be an effort to improve Pyongyang’s bargaining position, or a sign of a power struggle within North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s government. Han Park, a scholar at the University of Georgia, said North Korea wants normal diplomatic relations and a non-aggression pact with the United States — and is “angry enough and hungry enough to sell anything they can put their hands on.” “They are a big-time weapons trader,” Park said. “If we are going to try to do something about nonproliferation, we have to include diplomatic relations with North Korea.” Analysts say North Korea is years from having a weapon it can put atop a long-range missile like those in the U.S., Chinese or Russian arsenals. Meanwhile, Kim is widely reported to have suffered a stroke in August and has been absent from many public functions in recent months. In April, he named his son Kim Jong-un and brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, to the country’s powerful National Defense Commission, suggesting his son might be his heir. Rebecca Johnson, executive director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, told CNN that Kim “needs to demonstrate domestically that he is in charge.” “Doing the nuclear tests, firing a couple of missiles, is a way to do that — perhaps the only way to do that — because he can’t feed the people,” she said.

North and South Korea technically remain at war, because no treaty formalized the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953. The conflict also involved China and the United States, and about 25,000 U.S. troops are still based in South Korea. But Johnson said renewed conflict is unlikely; rather, Pyongyang is “playing a political game.” “It causes a lot of anxiety in South Korea and Japan, but they are sensible countries,” she said. “They know that this can be dealt with politically and diplomatically. This is not a situation where anyone should start saber-rattling and threatening to go to war.”