SEOUL - North Korea fired seven ballistic missiles on Saturday, South Korea's defense ministry said, in an act of defiance toward the United States on its Independence Day that further stoked regional tensions.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the missiles were Scud-type, marking an escalation of recent saber-rattling by the reclusive North, which has fired several non-ballistic, short-range missile since the May 25 nuclear test.
North Korea is barred by United Nations resolutions from firing ballistic missile such as the Scud. A South Korean Defense Ministry official said more launches could come soon.
It was the biggest barrage of ballistic missiles the North has fired since it launched seven, including its longest-range Taepodong-2, in 2006 near the July 4 holiday.
The launches came as the United States has cracked down on firms suspected of helping the North in its trade in arms and missiles, which were subject to U.N. sanctions imposed after the nuclear test and are a vital source of foreign currency for the cash-short state.
An anonymous South Korean official quoted by Yonhap said the launch may have been intended to send a message to Washington, the North's main foe who for years has been trying to press Pyongyang to end its atomic ambitions and rein in missiles that threaten U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
In Washington, 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, said U.S. State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth. 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.
CALLS FOR CALM
Russia and China called for calm, saying all sides should refrain from any steps that could further destabilize the region, Moscow's Foreign Ministry said.
Moscow and Beijing called for a return to suspended six-party talks involving China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States aimed at coaxing North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
There is still no alternative to the six-party talks, which remain the most effective instrument for resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, and we call on them to be renewed as soon as possible, the statement said.
Britain and France condemned the missile tests and said they were a breach of U.N. resolutions.
These latest provocations will only serve to strengthen our resolve as we work with international partners to implement the robust measures in the UN Security Council Resolution passed unanimously last month, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said. The goal was to see North Korea return to the negotiations, he added.
South Korea's Defense Ministry confirmed the North fired seven missiles off its east coast from morning to late afternoon that flew about 400 km (250 miles) and splashed into the sea.
It is a provocative act that clearly violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, Yonhap quoted a statement from South Korea's Foreign Ministry as saying.
Japan's foreign ministry said in a statement the country: strongly protests and regrets today's missile launches by North Korea as they are a serious act of provocation against the security of neighboring countries, including Japan.
North Korea is thought to have more than 600 Scud-type missiles that include the Hwasong-5, with a range of about 300 km (185 miles) and the Hwasong-6, with a range of about 500 km (310 miles).
It also has more than 300 mid-range Rodong missiles that can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan. Weapons experts said the North does not have the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to mount as a warhead on a missile.
North Korea fired four short-range, non-ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast on Thursday.
The U.S. envoy who coordinates sanctions against the North, was in China earlier this week to enlist Beijing's help in getting tougher with North Korea.
China is the North's biggest benefactor and trade partner whose help would be essential for an effective sanctions regime, analysts said.
Daniel Pinkston, with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, said the test helps the North's military in its missile capabilities and could also be linked to the sanctions.
Buyers, who are taking increased risks, want to be assured about the quality and reliability of the product, he said.
North Korea fired a rocket it said put a satellite into space in April. U.S., South Korean and other officials said the launch was a disguised test of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which could hit U.S. territory.
The North has also threatened to fire another Taepodong-2, but there has been no indication it has started preparations for placing a rocket on a launch pad and fuelling it, a process that takes about four days and can be seen by U.S. spy satellites, South Korean officials have said.
The North has raised tension in recently by saying it has started a program to enrich uranium, which could give it a second path to a nuclear bomb, threatening to attack the South, and extracting plutonium at its aging Yongbyon nuclear plant.
Analysts said the moves may be aimed at securing internal support for leader Kim Jong-il, 67 and thought to have suffered a stroke a year ago, as he prepares for his youngest son to succeed him at the head of Asia's only communist dynasty.
(Additional reporting by Aiko Hayashi in Tokyo and Seo Eun-kyung in Seoul, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Editing by Charles Dick and Jackie Frank)