SEOUL/TOKYO (REUTERS, AFP) – North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday (Feb 7) carrying what it has called a satellite, but its neighbours and Washington denounced the launch as a missile test, conducted in defiance of United Nations sanctions and just weeks after a nuclear bomb test.
The United States Strategic Command said it had detected a missile entering space and South Korea’s military said the rocket had put an object into orbit, quashing earlier media reports indicating the rocket might have failed in flight.
“Everything we have seen is consistent with a successful repeat of the 2012 (launch),” said US missile technology expert John Schilling, referring to a previous launch of what the North said was a communications satellite. “But it’s still too early to tell for sure,” said Schilling, who is involved in the “38 North” monitoring project at Johns Hopkins University.
The rocket was launched at around 9.30am Seoul time (8.30am Singapore) in a southward trajectory. Japan’s Fuji Television Network showed a streak of light heading into the sky, taken from a camera at China’s border with North Korea.
North Korea, which last month exploded a nuclear device, had notified UN agencies that it planned to launch a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite, triggering opposition from governments that see it as a long-range missile test.
North Korean state television in a special announcement at midday said it had successfully placed a satellite in orbit. A state television announcer said the launch, personally ordered by leader Kim Jong Un, had “successfully put our Earth observation satellite Kwangmyong 4 ... into orbit.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon strongly condemned North Korea’s latest rocket launch and urged it to “halt its provocative actions,” Ban’s press office said in a statement on Saturday (Feb 6). “It is deeply deplorable that (North Korea) has conducted a launch using ballistic missile technology in violation of relevant Security Council resolutions on 6 February 2016 despite the united plea of the international community against such an act,” the office said.
The UN Security Council was likely to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday (Feb 7) to discuss the launch, at the request of the US, Japan and South Korea, diplomats said.
“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.
Isolated North Korea had initially given a Feb 8-25 time frame for the launch but on Saturday (Feb 6) changed that to Feb 7-14, apparently taking advantage of clear weather on Sunday (Feb 7).
The US was tracking the rocket launch and said it did not believe that it posed a threat to the US or its allies, defense officials said.
The US will work with the UN Security Council on “significant measures” to hold North Korea to account for its launch, US Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Calling the launch a flagrant violation of UN resolutions on the country’s use of ballistic missile technology, Kerry reaffirmed the “ironclad” US defense commitments to allies Japan and South Korea and called the launch a destabilising and unacceptable challenge to peace and security.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye said the Council should respond quickly with “strong punitive measures” against what she called a grave challenge to global peace and security.
South Korean and US defence officials said they would immediately start formal discussions on the deployment of an advanced US missile defence 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 Defence (THAAD) system so close to its border. China on Sunday (Feb 7) “expressed regret” over North Korea’s launch. “With regards to the DPRK’s insistence on implementing a launch of missile technology in the face of international opposition, China expresses regret,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was quoted as saying on the ministry’s website.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch “absolutely unacceptable”, especially after North Korea had tested a nuclear device last month. “To launch a missile after conducting a nuclear test goes against the UN resolution. We will respond resolutely, coordinating closely with the international community,” he told reporters.
Japan had said that it was ready to shoot down the rocket if it threatened the country, but did not take any action to do so, Japan’s NHK reported.
Russia 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.
North Korea has said that its most recent nuclear test - its fourth - was of a hydrogen bomb. However, the US and other governments have expressed doubt over that claim.
North Korea is believed to be working on miniaturising a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile, but many experts say it is some time away from perfecting such technology.
It has shown off two versions of a ballistic missile resembling a type that could reach the US West Coast, but there is no evidence the missiles have been tested.
North Korea says it has a sovereign right to pursue a space programme.