White House says North Korean missile firing a "provocation"

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.