SEOUL: North Korea said Sunday it had successfully put a satellite into orbit, with a rocket launch widely condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test for a weapons delivery system to strike the US mainland.
The launch, which violated multiple UN resolutions, amounted to the North doubling down against an international community already struggling to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear test a month ago.
There was no immediate external confirmation that the final stage of the satellite-bearing rocket had successfully achieved orbit, although a US defense official said the launch vehicle “appears to have reached space.”
In a special state TV broadcast, a female North Korean announcer, wearing a traditional Korean hanbok dress, hailed the “epochal” launch, personally ordered by leader Kim Jong-Un.
While stressing that it represented the legitimate exercise of North Korea’s right to the “peaceful and independent” use of space, she also noted that it marked a breakthrough in boosting national “defense capability.”
Condemnation was swift, with US Secretary of State John Kerry calling the launch a “flagrant violation” of UN resolutions and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying it was “absolutely intolerable.”
Russia on Sunday likewise condemned the launch, saying the move was a serious blow to regional security including that of Pyongyang.
“It is obvious that such actions lead to a serious aggravation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia on the whole…(and) inflict serious damage to the security of the countries of the region, first and foremost North Korea itself,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
UN emergency meeting
In New York, diplomats said the UN Security Council would meet in emergency session later Sunday to discuss what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described as a “deeply deplorable” development.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the Council should respond quickly with “strong punitive measures.”
South Korean and US defense officials said they would immediately start formal discussions on the deployment of an advanced US missile defense system in South Korea to counter the growing threat from North Korea.
“It is time to move forward on this issue,” said Thomas Vandal, commander of the Eighth US Army based in South Korea.
China has already voiced stiff opposition to any such deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system so close to its border.
Sunday’s rocket, carrying an Earth observation satellite, took off at around 9:00 am Pyongyang time (0030 GMT) and, according to state TV, achieved orbit 10 minutes later.
Both South Korea and Japan had threatened to shoot it down if it encroached on their territory.
Multiple UN Security Council resolutions proscribe North Korea’s development of its ballistic missile program.
Despite Pyongyang’s insistence on scientific space missions, its rockets are considered dual-use technology with both civil and military applications.
The United States, along with allies like South Korea and Japan, had warned Pyongyang it would pay a heavy price for pushing ahead with launch, but analysts said the North’s timing was carefully calculated to minimize the repercussions.
“North Korea likely calculates that a launch so soon after the nuclear test will probably only incrementally affect the UN sanctions arising from that test,” said Alison Evans, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s.
North Korea’s chief diplomatic ally, China, which has been resisting the US push for tougher sanctions, reacted briefly to the launch with a simple expression of “regret.”
While infuriated by North Korea’s refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions, China’s overriding concern is avoiding a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and the possibility of a US-allied unified Korea on its border.
North Korea last launched a long-range rocket in December 2012, placing a similar Earth observation satellite in orbit.
Western intelligence experts say that satellite has never functioned properly, fueling suspicion of the mission’s scientific veneer.
Despite Pyongyang’s bellicose claims to the contrary, the North is still seen as being years away from developing a credible intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
A key challenge it faces is mastering the reentry technology required to deliver a payload as far away as the United States.
“An ICBM warhead, unlike a satellite, needs to come down as well as go up,” said aerospace engineer John Schilling, who has closely followed the North’s missile program.
“North Korea has never demonstrated the ability to build a reentry vehicle that can survive at even half the speed an ICBM would require,” Schilling said.
“If and when they do, what is presently a theoretical threat will become very real and alarming,” he added.