A South Korean military intelligence official confirmed yesterday that North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles this week, as the US urged Pyongyang to abide by its moratorium on missile tests.
There were conflicting reports about details of Wednesday's missile launches, but they underscored the dangers posed by the North's longer-range missiles and professed nuclear weapons program and its tendency to cause instability in the region.
"It is true that North Korea fired the missiles yesterday," the South Korean intelligence official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information.
He added that there had been indications of a missile launch over the past two days, including the transfer of equipment to the area of the launch site at Sabujin, just below the city of Kim Chaek in North Hamkyong Province on North Korea's northeast coast on the Sea of Japan.
He could not confirm the direction of the missile launch.
On Wednesday, Japan's Kyodo news agency cited a "security source" in China as saying the missiles were fired by mistake in the direction of China during a military drill and apparently landed inside the North.
The agency also cited a "Western military source" as saying the short-range missiles were test-fired in an eastern direction from the North's eastern coast, toward the Sea of Japan.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that, "Indications are that North Korea launched two short-range missiles," similar to tests it has conducted in the past.
"We have consistently pointed out that North Korea's missile program is a concern that poses a threat to the region and the larger international community," McClellan said in an e-mail to reporters.
Analysts say the North's ballistic missiles are capable of hitting all of Japan as well as Hawaii, Alaska and perhaps portions of the US West Coast.
However, they said Wednesday's tests were more about checking performance than rattling sabers. They said if Pyongyang had wanted to send a strong signal it could have wheeled out far bigger missiles.
"If the North Koreans really wanted to send a signal, why not do a ballistic missile test?" Daniel Pinkston, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, said by telephone.
"We attach significance to it [the test] because it has the words 'North Korea' and `missile,'" Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank based in Hawaii, said by telephone.
"The North Koreans would be happy for us to attach a political message but I am not sure that was their intention," he said.
Pyongyang shocked Tokyo and other nations when it test-fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan in 1998, giving impetus to the US and Japanese efforts to upgrade their missile defense systems.
Although North Korea announced a moratorium on missile tests a year later, it has since test-fired short-range missiles many times, including one launched into the Sea of Japan last May.
US officials said North Korea should abide by its missile moratorium, and that its activities demonstrated the importance of getting Pyongyang to drop its boycott of six-nation talks on halting its nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, the US and Japan successfully tested an interceptor missile off Hawaii on Wednesday, further advancing a joint ballistic missile defense system aimed at shooting down enemy missiles.