WASHINGTON — After weeks of sternly worded warnings to North Korea, the Bush administration adopted a measured call for diplomacy Wednesday after Pyongyang stunned world leaders by test-launching seven missiles, including one considered capable of reaching American territories in the Pacific.
While the U.S. examined its limited options for punishing North Korea, intelligence officials warned of more missile launches, including another of the long-range Taepodong 2.
President Bush said the missile firings had only deepened North Korea's isolation, and he urged the country's leaders to rejoin stalled international talks on its nuclear program.
"They've isolated themselves further, and that's sad for the people of North Korea," Bush said at the White House. "I am deeply concerned about the plight of the people of North Korea."
North Korea fired six of the missiles early Wednesday and launched a seventh later in the day as members of the U.N. Security Council were preparing for an emergency meeting to decide on actions against the reclusive state.
In its first official statement today, North Korea said, "Our military will continue with missile launch drills in the future as part of efforts to strengthen our self-defense. If anyone intends to dispute or add pressure about this, we will have to take stronger physical actions in other forms."
Japan, with the support of the United States and Britain, introduced a resolution calling for economic sanctions against Pyongyang. But the Security Council ended the day without an agreement, and Russia and China asked for a milder "presidential statement" from the council instead of the legally binding Japanese resolution.
Japan, meanwhile, said it was denying docking permission to a North Korean passenger-cargo ferry, and South Korea said it was making no further plans for humanitarian aid to North Korea after sending a shipment of fertilizer later this week.
But the relatively low-key reaction in Washington, the United Nations and elsewhere reflected the lack of an international consensus and also a determination by the Bush administration not to be drawn into a one-on-one struggle with North Korea.
"The U.S. response is we're working with our allies to figure out how to try to get North Korea back to the table," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. "There are attempts to try to describe this almost in breathless World War II terms. This is not such a situation."
Bush spoke late Wednesday by telephone with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi about the need to find a diplomatic solution through six-nation talks on denuclearization. He downplayed the possibility of military force but emphasized "the need for a unified and strong response in the United Nations and elsewhere to North Korea's provocative behavior," said Eryn Witcher, a White House spokeswoman.
Diplomatic sources said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to visit Asia this month and that reviving the six-nation talks would be a key item on her agenda. The talks have been stalled since September.
The subdued response drew some criticism.
"The United States is a paper tiger," said Song Yong-sun, a military expert who serves in South Korea's National Assembly as part of the conservative opposition party. Referring to the North Korean leader, she added, "Kim Jong Il knows very well that Bush isn't going to do anything to punish him."
Meanwhile, there were strong indications in diplomatic and intelligence circles that North Korea was contemplating additional launches.
South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung told a parliamentary committee that more were expected because of the movement of equipment and personnel.
A South Korean official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that North Korea might try to launch another Taepodong because the one launched Wednesday flew only 42 seconds before exploding.
"They are frustrated because the first test was a failure," said the official. He and other experts said there was possibly a second Taepodong launch site besides the one at Musudan-ri missile base where the earlier launch took place.
North Korean fishermen have been warned to stay away from seas near the launch sites off the east coast until July 11, South Korean news agencies reported.
"We're watching this with interest, and keeping on top of it," Snow said when asked about the possibility of additional launches. "But there is certainly the potential there."
U.S. defense officials Wednesday went to great lengths to downplay the military's reaction to the North Korean launches and insisted the American response was now in the hands of diplomats.