N. Korean Missile Launches Provoke International Criticism

Defying weeks of international warnings not to stage a missile test, North Korea has fired at least seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2. World leaders are condemning the launches as a provocation - but Washington says the door to nuclear weapons diplomacy remains open.

Defense officials in South Korea, the United States, and Japan confirmed North Korea has test-launched seven missiles.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed alarm about the latest launch in a Tokyo news conference.

He says he has heard there was a seventh launch and there is a possibility more missiles may be fired. He says the launches will not benefit North Korea - but adds other countries should not sever communications with Pyongyang.

The United States and other countries, including Australia, have condemned the launches as provocations. The NATO military alliance has called for a "firm response" to the launches.

The North Korean tests commenced before dawn Wednesday. Most were short-range missiles that fell into the Sea of Japan.

One was a long-range Taepodong-2, theoretically capable of reaching the United States. But it appears to have failed less than a minute after launch. The seventh launch, early in the evening, apparently was a medium-range missile that fell into the sea east of the Korean peninsula.

Japan quickly responded by barring a North Korean ferry from its ports. Officials indicated more punitive action may be on the way.

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to discuss the launches at an emergency meeting.

Ri Pyung Dok, a policy researcher at North Korea's Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, told Japanese journalists that his country is well within its rights to launch missiles.

He says missile tests are a matter of national sovereignty and no nation has the right to question whether they are right or wrong. His comments were broadcast by South Korean media.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by telephone soon after the first launches.

He says the two agree the launches are a threat to peace, and they will closely coordinate on a response.

The South Korean president's office also said the situation should be resolved by diplomacy and called for calm.

North Korea is refusing to return to six-nation talks on implementing a pledge it made to stop developing nuclear weapons. Japan, the United States, South Korea, Russia, and China say they are ready to provide financial and diplomatic benefits to the North if it ends its nuclear programs.

China expressed concern over the North's launches, and has urged all parties to be calm. Indonesia sent a special envoy to Pyongyang to discuss the situation.

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, stressed the door remains open for Pyongyang to negotiate.

"As we have said before, there will be consequences for these latest missile tests. But it does not have to be this way," Vershbow says. "There is a clear path for North Korea to join the international community - rather than isolate itself from the international community. And that path is the six-party talks."

For six years, South Korea has tried to engage North Korea and has given it billions of dollars worth of aid and economic support.