SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea test-fired a barrage of short-range missiles on Friday in apparent response to the new South Korean government’s tougher stance on Pyongyang.
The launches came as the North issued a stern rebuke to Washington over an impasse at nuclear disarmament talks, warning the Americans’ attitude could “seriously” affect the continuing disablement of Pyongyang’s atomic facilities.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who took office last month, has said he would take a harder policy line on the North — a change from a decade of liberal Seoul governments who avoided confrontation to maintain a “sunshine policy” of engagement.
South Korean presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said the missile tests were part of routine training. He told reporters Seoul was “closely monitoring the situation.”
“I believe North Korea would also not want a strain in inter-Korean relations,” Lee said.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North’s “short-range guided missile” firing was believed to be aimed at testing and improving the missile’s performance. It did not give specifics, including exactly how many missiles were fired.
It was unclear where the tests took place. North Korea declared a no-sailing zone off the coastal city of Nampo and placed a military boat equipped with anti-ship missiles on standby, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Yonhap reported that North Korea launched three ship-to-ship missiles at around 10:30 a.m. local time, citing unidentified government officials. News cable channel YTN, public broadcaster KBS and other media carried similar reports.
The South’s military said that there was no sign Saturday that North Korea was firing additional missiles.
“So far, there are no more unusual moves with regard to that,” an official of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said of the possibility of the North firing additional missiles. He spoke on customary condition of anonymity citing office policy.
Also Friday, North Korea’s navy command warned it will not sit idly by while South Korean navy ships engage in provocative actions near the disputed western maritime border. South Korea’s Defense Ministry dismissed the North’s accusation, saying its navy vessels have never entered the North’s waters.
The launches came a day after Seoul withdrew officials from a joint industrial zone with North Korea at Pyongyang’s request.
That move was prompted by the North’s anger over South Korean statements that any expansion of the project in the border city of Kaesong would only happen if the North resolved the international standoff over its nuclear weapons.
Also on Thursday, South Korea voted in favor of a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council that condemned human rights abuses in North Korea. The North rejects such allegations and argues they are part of U.S.-led efforts to overthrow the regime.
The North regularly test fires missiles, and its long-range models are believed able to possibly reach as far as the western coast of the United States. The country conducted its first and only nuclear bomb test in October 2006, but it is not known to have a weapon design able to fit inside a missile warhead.
North Korea shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor and has taken steps to disable its main atomic facilities under a landmark disarmament-for-aid deal reached last year with the United States and other regional powers.
However, negotiations on further disarmament have hit an impasse over the North’s pledge to give a full declaration of its nuclear programs.
The White House on Friday criticized the missile launches.
“North Korea should focus on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and deliver a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear weapons programs, and nuclear proliferation activities and to complete the agreed disablement,” said presidential spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
North Korea has claimed it gave the U.S. a nuclear list in November, but Washington said the North never produced a “complete and correct” declaration that would address all its past atomic activity.
On Friday, the North blamed Washington for the deadlocked talks and warned it would slow ongoing disablement of its atomic facilities.
The North’s Foreign Ministry said the country has done its best to clear U.S. suspicions that it pursued a uranium-based atomic bomb program and also transferred nuclear technology to Syria, but Washington has been sticking to its “wrong” claims.
Pyongyang has “never dreamed” of doing either, the ministry said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, and “such things will not happen in the future too.”
“The U.S. side is playing a poor trick to brand (the North) as a criminal at any cost in order to save its face,” the North said. “Should the U.S. delay the settlement of the nuclear issue, persistently trying to cook up fictions, it will seriously affect the disabling of nuclear facilities.”
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this week in Washington that “time and patience is running out” at the nuclear talks.