SEOUL - North Korea test-fired short-range missiles on Monday, South Korean media reported, sparking consternation just as the reclusive state had been signaling to the outside world it might return to nuclear talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reacting to the reported launches, said Washington would continue to work toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, while a Russian official expressed bewilderment.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a government source as saying Pyongyang had launched five missiles off its east coast and declared a 'no sail' zone in the area from October 10-20.
South Korean government officials were not immediately available for comment and North Korean state media, by late evening, had made no reference to any incident.
The latest launches, the first in about three months, come as Pyongyang has said it is ready to return to international talks on its nuclear weapons program, though it has insisted it holds talks first with the United States.
A South Korea military official told Reuters that if the report was true, it was a surprise but could not say if the firings were a provocation because they do it pretty often.
But they coincided with local media reports that the United States is planning to send its aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the South Korean port of Busan on Tuesday.
Clinton, speaking at a news conference in Belfast, said the United States and its allies were trying to demonstrate to North Korea that the international community would not accept its continuing nuclear program.
Our goals remain the same. We intend to work toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, she said.
Russia was more forthright in its criticism of the North.
The launch of short-range missiles by the Korean People's Democratic Republic causes bewilderment, Itar-Tass news agency quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry source as saying.
It was not the most suitable time to do this now, when all efforts are made to restart six-way talks on Korea's nuclear problem, the source was quoted as saying.
North Korea said last week during a rare visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that it was willing to return to the negotiations which it walked away from late last year and subsequently said were dead. The talks are with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
The North has hundreds of short-range range missiles, with the ability to strike the South Korean capital Seoul and its sprawling urban surroundings which are home to around 25 million people.
Though it has conducted two nuclear tests, weapons experts said it does not have the technology to create a small enough nuclear payload to sit on top of a rocket, nor has it successfully tested a ballistic missile.
Some analysts say that the United States' major concern is to ensure North Korea does not sell what nuclear technology it does have abroad.
A nuclear test in May and a spate of missile tests around the same time triggered a tightening of sanctions against the North, whose desperate economic straits some analysts have said are partly behind its recent attempts to get on better terms with the outside world.
A U.N. resolution bans North Korea from launching ballistic missiles, but there are no international agreements that bar it from test-launching short-range missiles.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul, Oleg Schedrov in Moscow and Jeff Mason in Belfast; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)