WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House is calculating its response to North Korea's defiant Fourth of July missile tests which raised the stakes in a nuclear standoff and pressured the United States and its partners to penalize Pyongyang.
The Bush administration strongly condemned North Korea's test-firing of six missiles, including a long-range one capable of reaching U.S. soil, but said they did not pose a danger to America.
North Korea fired a seventh missile early Wednesday, after the initial round of U.S. reaction.
For now, talking is the order of the day. Japan asked the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency session Wednesday. Tokyo was expected to present a U.N. resolution protesting the missile tests, which sent U.S. officials scurrying to telephones for urgent, long-distance diplomacy.
The long-range missile, called the Taepondong-2, failed less than a minute after liftoff. It's unclear what North Korea learned from launching the shorter and medium-range ones, which fell into the Sea of Japan, but could be capable of striking its neighbors.
"Regardless of whether the series of launches occurred as North Korea planned, they nevertheless demonstrate North Korea's intent to intimidate other states by developing missiles of increasingly longer ranges," White House press secretary Tony Snow said in a statement released late Tuesday night. "We urge the North to refrain from further provocative acts, including further ballistic missile launches."
Democrats also expressed concern.
"This is an incredibly immature regime in the north. That's the part that frightens me about them," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday.
"I'm not concerned immediately about their nuclear capability or anything coming close to reaching the United States in this decade and maybe beyond," Biden told CBS News. "But I do think they're so irrational ... that they may play a game of brinksmanship."
Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, U.N. ambassador during the Clinton administration, told ABC News that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, was using the missile firings to flex his muscle.
"He's trying to say, hey, I'm around. I'm a player ... He's crazy like a fox. He's unpredictable. He's reckless. But you have to take him seriously," Richardson said.
The White House said the United States would continue to take all necessary measures to protect itself and its allies, yet further diplomacy, not military action, appeared to be the preferred course of action.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state, began talking Tuesday with their counterparts in Japan, China, Russia and South Korea. Hill was being dispatched to the region for new rounds of discussions.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was meeting Wednesday with his South Korean counterpart, a meeting that now will be dominated by the tests, which could plunge global relations with the reclusive communist nation farther into a deep freeze.
"We do consider it provocative behavior," Hadley told reporters in a telephone briefing Tuesday.
President Bush, who was at the White House with family and friends gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July and his 60th birthday on Thursday, was notified of the test firings, and consulted with Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"It wasn't that he (the president) was surprised because we've seen this coming for a while," Hadley said. "I think his instinct is that this just shows the defiance of the international community by North Korea."
The test-firings, however, present a weighty national security challenge for Bush. The president named North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, in his "axis of evil," yet has focused most of his attention on the later two nations even though Pyongyang claims it already has nuclear weapons.
"The American officials have said that if the North Koreans proceed with a test, there are going to be consequences," said Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration and chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 1996 to 2000. "If there aren't consequences, the Bush administration is going to look like a paper tiger."
The challenge for Bush is to mobilize international support for penalizing the North Koreans. The United States and several of North Korea's neighbors had issued stern warnings, saying a missile test would mean further isolation and sanctions.
"It's open defiance of the Bush administration," Einhorn said. "The six launches probably had a military function, but it also has a political motivation. It was kind of `In-your-face America."'
The White House stressed that the nuclear standoff with North Korea was not a battle between Washington and Pyongyang. The United States, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea have been involved in so-called six-party talks on the issue, but those negotiations have been stalled since North Korea boycotted them in September. "The appropriate thing is to pull together all the parties and figure out in a unified way the best way to proceed," Snow said.
About two weeks ago, in anticipation of the tests, the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado was put on heightened alert, or "Bravo-Plus" - a status slightly higher than a medium threat level. NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command are responsible for defending U.S. territory.