North Korea’s rocket may have fallen into the sea, but military experts cautioned Monday against calling it a complete failure, noting that it traveled twice as far as any missile the country has launched.
Although the distance was still far short of showing North Korea could reach U.S. territory, it rattled the North’s neighbors and countries around the globe, with the U.S. and its allies pushing for quick punishment at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting held hours after liftoff.
The launch, which demonstrated progress, is a particularly worrying development for a belligerent country that says it has nuclear weapons and once threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
President Barack Obama, faced with his first global security crisis, called for an international response and condemned North Korea for threatening the peace and stability of nations “near and far” with what Pyongyang claimed was a satellite launch and its neighbors suspect was a test of a long-range missile technology.
“North Korea broke the rules, once again, by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles,” Obama said in Prague. “This provocation underscores the need for action, not just … in the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons.”
Council members met for three hours Sunday but failed to release even a customary preliminary statement of condemnation — evidence of the challenges in agreeing on some kind of punishment. China, the North’s closest ally, and Russia hold veto power and could water down any response.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told CBS television Monday that the U.S. is calling for a Security Council resolution that would be binding under international law, so North Korea’s leaders understand “they can’t act with impunity.”
Diplomats privy to the closed-door talks say China, Russia, Libya and Vietnam were concerned about further alienating and destabilizing North Korea.
“Our position is that all countries concerned should show restraint and refrain from taking actions that might lead to increased tensions,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui said.
Analysts say sanctions imposed after the North’s underground nuclear test in 2006 have had little effect because some countries showed no will to impose them. Those sanctions bar the North from ballistic missile activity. Pyongyang claims it was exercising its right to peaceful space development.
Still, Japan said it plans to extend its economic sanctions on the North for another year. The measures, among other things, prohibit Japanese companies from buying North Korean exports.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso urged the Security Council to take a firm stance against North Korea and said he would continue lobbying China and Russia for support.
“The international society should send a strong message to North Korea in a concerted action,” he told reporters Monday.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak also pressed Monday for China’s support, his office said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il personally observed the launch, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday, expressing “great satisfaction” with the achievement.
Pyongyang’s state media claimed again Monday that the rocket put an experimental communications satellite into orbit, saying North Korea’s people were carried away by “great passion” over the news.
Byun Young Rip, chief of the country’s science academy, said the launch would provide the North with a “scientific, technological guarantee” to launch more satellites, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
But U.S. and South Korean officials claim the entire rocket, including whatever payload it carried, ended up in the ocean after Sunday’s launch. South Korean officials said the rocket’s second stage landed in waters about 1,900 miles (3,100 kilometers) from the northeastern North Korean launch site.
That is double the distance a rocket managed in 1998 and far better than a 2006 launch of a long-range missile that fizzled just 42 seconds after liftoff. Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Mongolia and many parts of China now are within striking range, but Anchorage, Alaska, is roughly 3,500 miles (6,000 kilometers) from the launch site and the U.S. mainland much farther away.
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that while the rocket’s first stage successfully broke away, it appears the second and third stages failed to separate or had difficulty doing so.
“So it has to call into question the dependability and reliability of the system,” he said. “They’re still a long ways off” from being able to successfully target and strike the United States, he said.
But Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at Seoul’s state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the launch raises the stakes at stalled disarmament talks because Pyongyang now has more to bargain away.
“Militarily and politically, it’s not a failure” because “North Korea demonstrated a greatly enhanced range,” Kim said. “North Korea is playing a game of trying to manipulate the U.S. by getting it within range, which is the so-called pressure card.”
Pyongyang could carry out other provocative acts, such as a second nuclear test, if its rocket launch doesn’t produce what it wants: direct talks with the U.S., said Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University.
However, he said naval skirmishes or short-range missile tests are unlikely since they are “routine” provocations directed at South Korea, not the U.S.
“They will wait for the response to this satellite launch,” Pinkston predicted.
North Korea, one of the world’s poorest countries, is in desperate need of outside aid, particularly since the help that flowed in unconditionally from neighboring South Korea for a decade has dried up since Lee took office in Seoul in 2008.
Pyongyang routinely uses its nuclear weapons program as its trump card, promising to abandon its atomic ambitions in exchange for aid and then exercising the nuclear threat when it doesn’t get its way. The North also has reportedly been peddling missile parts and technology.
Iran, another country with controversial missile and nuclear programs, defended North Korea’s rocket launch.
“We always consider the peaceful use of space in the framework of international regulation as a right for all,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, said in Tehran.
Iran is believed to have cooperated extensively with North Korea on missile technology, though Iran denies it.