U.N. mulls sanctions after North Korea missile launch

UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council considered imposing sanctions on North Korea’s weapons program after the reclusive state test-fired a series of missiles, including a long-range weapon.

But President Bush, reflecting the measured response Washington has taken to Pyongyang’s latest sabre-rattling, said the tests did not diminish his desire to solve a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

“I view this as an opportunity to remind the international community that we must work together to continue to work hard to convince the North Korean leader to give up any weapons program,” Bush told reporters. “They’ve agreed to do that in the past and we will hold them to account.”

Defying international warnings, North Korea launched at least six missiles early on Wednesday in North Korea and a seventh some 12 hours later, officials in Japan and South Korea said.

The long-range Taepodong-2 missile apparently failed 40 seconds into its flight, U.S. officials said. Japanese and South Korean officials said the missiles fell into the sea separating the Korean peninsula from Japan.

Japan, backed by the United States and Britain prepared a resolution demanding that nations withhold all funds, material and technology that could be used for North Korea’s missile program.

But Russia and China, after an emergency council meeting, made clear they would oppose any sanctions. Both nations, who have veto power, favor a weaker council statement.

White House spokesman Tony Snow reiterated U.S. concern that North Korea may have two or three more short- and medium-range missiles that are “launchable.”

Though Washington had long warned of a harsh response if Pyongyang tested its long-range Taepodong-2 missile, Bush and other U.S. officials stopped short of threatening to push for U.N. sanctions.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday it was prepared to intercept the long-range North Korean missile that failed less than a minute after being launched.

“What I will tell you is that each and every launch was detected and monitored and that the interceptors were operational during the missile launches that took place,” Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

Bush said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was getting in touch with her counterparts in the stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program to resolve the issue of Pyongyang’s missile tests.

Experts believe North Korea has enough nuclear material to make at least a half-dozen atomic bombs.

“We want to continue to send a clear message that there is a better way forward for the leader of North Korea,” Bush said. “It’s hard to understand his intentions. It’s hard to understand why he would not only fire one missile that failed but five others, and so we’re talking with our friends and allies on the subject,” Bush said.

The six-party talks have been stalled since last November after United States cracked down on a Macau bank that handled North Korean accounts that Washington said were involved in Pyongyang’s illicit activities, like counterfeiting.

U.S. negotiator Chris Hill, who is expected to leave later on Wednesday for talks with America’s partners in the six-country talks — China, Russia, South Korea and Japan — said the missile tests had united the international community against Pyongyang.

But he also said in an interview with CNN International that Washington wants a tougher line from China.

China is North Korea’s closest ally and Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya struck a cautious note.