About 35 seconds after the launch, officials say the ICBM either failed outright or was aborted by plan, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. It did not reach deep space and posed no danger to Japan or the U.S.
The U.S. had prepared to track the launch, using both Aegis crusisers off Japan and giant radar based in Alaska. Had the flight continued, the combination of radars would have been enough to track where the missile would land, reports Andrews.
The audacious military exercise by the isolated communist nation came as the United States celebrated the Fourth of July holiday and launched the space shuttle Discovery from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
"We are urgently consulting with members of the Security Council," said John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Joseph Cirincione, an arms expert at the Center for American Progress, tells CBS' Dan Raviv there's a reason this happened on the Fourth of July.
"They know this is our national holiday. They want to remind us that they're still there."
The Bush administration said Tuesday five missiles were fired by North Korea in what it called a provocation, but not an immediate threat to the United States. Other estimates place the number of short range missiles as high as 10.
"We do consider it provocative behavior," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said. All of the missiles landed in the Sea of Japan between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, said the Japanese government.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton is in urgent consultations with Security Council members and on a conference call with the United Kingdom and France -- the "P3" -- in order to gather information to determine next steps, reports CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk.
"The challenge for U.S. negotiators will be to determine how to both protect the American public and to get the North Koreans back to the 6-party talks in light of the dangerous provocation that was caused by the July 4th launch of missiles," said Falk. "The next step is likely to be diplomacy and all hands on deck at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday morning, if not before."
"The reason that the launch is so threatening is because of North Korea's nuclear capability and because they pulled out of the Non Proliferation Treaty three years ago and, as a result, there is no confirmation of what they are up to," added Falk.
State Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the long-range missile was the Taepodong-2, North Korea's most advanced missile with a range of up to 9,320 miles. Experts believe a Taepodong-2 could reach the United States with a light payload.
The launch came after weeks of speculation that the North was preparing to test the Taepodong-2 from a site on its northeast coast. The preparations had generated stern warnings from the United States and Japan, which had threatened possible economic sanctions in response.
"North Korea has gone ahead with the launch despite international protest," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said. "That is regrettable from the standpoint of Japan's security, the stability of international society, and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
The missiles all landed hundreds of kilometers (miles) away from Japan and there were no reports the missiles caused damage within Japanese territory, Abe said.
He said the first missile was launched at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, or about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday EDT. The others were launched at bout 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., he said.
If the timing is correct, the North Korean missiles were launched within minutes of Tuesday's liftoff of Discovery, which blasted into orbit from Cape Canaveral in the first U.S. space shuttle launch in a year.
It was not clear which launch was the long-range missile. The Japanese government was unable to confirm the report by U.S. officials that a Taepodong-2 was fired.
Japan's Kyodo news agency, quoting a government official, had earlier said up to four missiles had been fired. But Japanese officials later said three missiles were launched.
North Korea's missile program is based on Scud technology provided by the former Soviet Union or Egypt, according to American and South Korean officials. North Korea started its Rodong-1 missile project in the late 1980s and test-fired the missile for the first time in 1993.
North Korea had observed a moratorium on long-range missile launches since 1999. It shocked the world in 1998 by firing a Taepodong missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.
On Monday, the North's main news agency quoted an unidentified newspaper analyst as saying Pyongyang was prepared to answer a U.S. military attack with "a relentless annihilating strike and a nuclear war."
The Bush administration responded by saying while it had no intention of attacking, it was determined to protect the United States if North Korea launched a long-range missile.
On Monday, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns warned North Korea against firing the missile and urged the communist country to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program.
The six-party talks, suspended by North Korea, involved negotiations by the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia with Pyongyang over the country's nuclear program.
The United States and its allies South Korea and Japan have taken quick steps over the past week to strengthen their missile defenses. Washington and Tokyo are working on a joint missile-defense shield, and South Korea is considering the purchase of American SM-2 defensive missiles for its destroyers.
The U.S. and North Korea have been in a standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program since 2002. The North claims to have produced nuclear weapons, but that claim has not been publicly verified by outside analysts.
While public information on North Korea's military capabilities is murky, experts doubt that the regime has managed to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on its long-range missiles.
Nonetheless, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told U.S. lawmakers last week that officials took the potential launch reports seriously and were looking at the full range of capabilities possessed by North Korea.