North Korea launched an anti-ship missile into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said Tuesday.
South Korea believed the missile to be a small, conventional one not the long-range, ballistic Taepo Dong rocket that U.S. officials fear can reach far beyond Japan and possibly hit parts of the continental United States.
"We believe that this is part of North Korea's usual tests of its weapons during the military exercise," said Col. Kim Sung-ok, an officer at South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The missile launch came hours before the inauguration of South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun. Roh was sworn in at a ceremony in front of the National Assembly building in Seoul.
Under an overcast sky, a 21-gun salute, a traditional honor guard and opera singers marked Roh's inauguration at a ceremony in front of the National Assembly building in Seoul. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were among tens of thousands who attended.
Powell had arrived in Seoul on Monday evening to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
"I will diligently implement my duty as president," Roh said.
But Roh said in his inauguration address that the first steps in calming jitters should be dialogue with the isolated country and building "mutual trust."
Roh said North Korea could win assistance from the international community if gives up its nuclear ambitions.
"It is up to Pyongyang whether to go ahead and obtain nuclear weapons or to get guarantees for the security of its regime and international economic support," Roh said after being sworn in on the steps of National Assembly building to the thunderous cracks of a 21-gun artillery salute and a military parade.
Both the United States and Japan have urged North Korea not to conduct missile testing amid the international standoff over the communist state's nuclear activities, saying it would raise tensions in the region.
A senior State Department official accompanying Powell said the missile was fired from Hamkyong Province in northeastern North Korea. "We understand the missile test was short range," the official said.
Jitters have run high since the United States accused North Korea of admitting to a secret nuclear weapons program late last year. The North has since pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and threatened to abandon the armistice that ended the Korean War five decades ago.
Charles Twining, a former U.S. ambassador with experience in Asian military, called the timing of the missile test "very strange."
"It just makes it even clearer that something has to be done to persuade North Korea by diplomatic means to work with the international community," said Twining, who is attending the Non-Alignment Movement summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an observer.
Earlier this month, U.S. intelligence officials said North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States. Washington also considers North Korea the top peddler of missile parts and technology to the Middle East.
The Japanese Defense Agency said Tuesday it was investigating the recent launch.
In August 1998, North Korea fired a multistage missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific, proving that Pyongyang is capable of striking any part of Japanese territory. U.S. officials believe that missile to have been a Taepo Dong-1 missile.
The following year, North Korea pledged to freeze testing of long-range missiles for the duration of negotiations to improve relations.
North Korea has a two-stage Taepo Dong 2, which may be able to reach Alaska or Hawaii, the United States government has said.
It is also believed to have developed a three-stage version of its Taepo Dong 2 missile. But it has not been flight-tested, U.S. officials said. That leaves some questions about the North Korea's capability to successfully launch the missile.
CIA Director George J. Tenet acknowledged the North Koreans have the capability to reach the western United States with a long-range missile.
However, U.S. intelligence officials had earlier said that North Korea has demonstrated no new missile capabilities in the last year.
A 2001 U.S. government report said a three-stage Taepo Dong could deliver a several-hundred-kilogram (pound) payload from North Korea to targets about 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) away — sufficient to strike all of North America.
In 2001, North Korea imposed a voluntary moratorium on ballistic missile testing through 2003. The North reaffirmed the moratorium in a statement issued after a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Sept. 17. However, Pyongyang has recently hinted it may resume testing.