SEOUL | North Korea celebrated U.S. Independence Day by test-firing seven missiles into the waters off the peninsula's eastern coast from morning until evening Saturday, defying U.N. sanctions and drawing sharp criticism from the U.S. and other Western nations.
The missiles, however, were mid-range, not the long-range intercontinental ballistic test that some had feared - a threat which has led Washington to deploy anti-missile systems to Hawaii.
"It is a provocative act that clearly violates U.N. Security Council resolutions 1695, 1718, and 1874 that bar North Korea's every activity related to ballistic missiles," South Korea's Foreign Ministry said.
Military officials told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that the missiles fired had a range of 240 to 310 miles - enough to hit targets all over South Korea - and may have been of the Rodong class - a North Korean upgrade of the Russian Scud. The first test-launch took place about 8 a.m. and the last one finished at 5:45 p.m.
South Korea and Japan both condemned the launches, with Tokyo calling them a "serious act of provocation." Britain and France issued similar statements, the Associated Press reported.
Russia and China, both close to North Korea, expressed concern over an "escalation of tension in the region," the Russian Foreign Ministry said after a meeting in Moscow.
In Washington, the White House had no immediate comment, but a State Department spokesman urged North Korea to avoid further stoking tensions.
"We are aware of possible missile launches by North Korea and are closely monitoring North Korea's activities and intentions," Reuters news agency quoted Karl Duckworth as saying. "North Korea should refrain from actions that aggravate tensions and focus on denuclearization talks.
"This type of North Korean behavior is not helpful. What North Korea needs to do is to fulfill its international obligations and commitments," he added.
Saturday's launchings were not the first to coincide with a symbolic American date. In 2006, North Korea test-launched several missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2, on Independence Day. And this year, North Korea's May 25th nuclear test coincided with the U.S. Memorial Day.
North Korea had previously warned international shipping to avoid its eastern coast until July 10, indicating the possibility of more test-launches.
The Saturday barrage followed the test-firing by North Korea of four anti-ship missiles Thursday, after North-South talks broke down with no progress. Although the South Korean navy has said recently that its patrol vessels are superior to those of the North and had out-gunned them in naval clashes in 1999 and 2002, anti-ship missiles are considered a serious threat to South Korean ships.
With North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il thought to be seriously sick, there have been signs that he is positioning his third son, Kim Jong-un, to take over. Some experts in South Korea see the North's threatening behavior since April - missile and nuclear tests, bellicose rhetoric and the holding of two American reporters and a South Korean worker at a joint industrial park - in the context of moves to placate the North Korean military in advance of a move to place Kim Jong-un as head of state.
Kim Jong-il's official title is chairman of the country's National Defense Committee and he has consistently promoted his "songeun" (military first) policy, but Jong-un's relationship with the military leadership is unknown.