For North Korea’s propaganda machine, the long-range rocket launch Sunday carved a glorious trail of “fascinating vapor” through the clear blue sky. For South Korea’s president, and other world leaders, it was a banned test of dangerous ballistic missile technology and yet another “intolerable provocation.”
The rocket launched from North Korea’s west coast only two hours after an eight-day launch window opened Sunday morning, its path tracked separately by the United States, Japan and South Korea. No damage from debris was reported.
North Korea, which calls its launches part of a peaceful space program, said it had successfully put a new Earth observation satellite, the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Shining Star 4, into orbit less than 10 minutes after liftoff. It vowed more such launches. A U.S. official said it might take days to assess whether the launch was a success.
The launch follows North Korea’s widely disputed claim last month to have tested a hydrogen bomb. Washington and its allies will consider the rocket launch a further provocation and push for more tough sanctions. The United States and Japan quickly requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday morning, saying Pyongyang violated a council ban on ballistic missile launches.
North Korean rocket and nuclear tests are seen as crucial steps toward the North’s ultimate goal of a nuclear armed missile that could hit the U.S. mainland. North Korea under leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to bolster its nuclear arsenal unless Washington scraps what Pyongyang calls a hostile policy meant to collapse Kim’s government. Diplomats are also pushing to tighten U.N. sanctions because of the North’s Jan. 6 nuclear test.
In a development that will worry both Pyongyang and Beijing, a senior South Korean Defense Ministry official, Yoo Jeh Seung, told reporters that Seoul and Washington have agreed to begin talks on a possible deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. North Korea has long decried the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and Beijing would see a South Korean deployment of THAAD, which is one of the world’s most advanced missile defense systems, as a threat to its interests in the region.
In a statement, North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration, in typical propaganda-laden language, praised “the fascinating vapor of the Juche satellite trailing in the clear blue sky in the spring of February on the threshold of the Day of the Shining Star.” Juche is a North Korean philosophy focusing on self-reliance; the Day of the Shining Star refers to the Feb. 16 birthday of former dictator Kim Jong Il. North Korea has previously staged rocket launches to mark important anniversaries.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said a South Korean Aegis-equipped destroyer detected the North Korean launch at 9:31 a.m. The rocket’s first stage fell off North Korea’s west coast at 9:32 a.m. and the rocket disappeared from South Korean radars at 9:36 a.m. off the southwestern coast. There was no reported damage in South Korea.
The U.S. Strategic Command issued a statement saying it detected and tracked a missile launched on a southern trajectory but it did not pose a threat to the United States or its allies.
Japan’s NHK broadcaster showed footage of an object visible in the skies from the southern island of Okinawa that was believed to be the rocket. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency later backed away, without elaborating, from a report that said the rocket might have failed.
The global condemnation began almost immediately.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch an “intolerable provocation.” She said the North’s efforts to advance its missile capabilities were “all about maintaining the regime” in Pyongyang and criticized the North Korean leadership for ignoring the hardships of ordinary North Koreans.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to “take action to totally protect the safety and well-being of our people.” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs a “serious threats to our interests – including the security of some of our closest allies.”
The Foreign Ministry in China, the North’s only major ally and its protector in the U.N. Security Council, where Beijing wields veto power, expressed “regret that, disregarding the opposition from the international community, the [North] side obstinately insisted on carrying out a launch using ballistic missile technologies.”
Kim Jong Un has overseen two of the North’s four nuclear tests and three long-range rocket launches since taking over after the death of his father, dictator Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. The U.N. Security Council prohibits North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity. Experts say that ballistic missiles and rockets in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology.
“If North Korea has only nuclear weapons, that’s not that intimidating. If they have only rockets, that’s not that intimidating, either. But if they have both of them, that means they can attack any target on Earth. So it becomes a global issue,” said Kwon Sejin, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
North Korea in 2013 also did a nuclear test and then unnerved the international community by orchestrating an escalating campaign of bombast, including threats to fire nuclear missiles at the U.S. and Seoul.
North Korea has spent decades trying to develop operational nuclear weapons.
North Korea has said that plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex are in operation. The North is thought to have a small arsenal of crude atomic bombs and an impressive array of short- and medium-range missiles. But it has yet to demonstrate that it can produce nuclear bombs small enough to place on a missile, or missiles that can reliably deliver its bombs to faraway targets.
After several failures testing a multistage, long-range rocket, it put its first satellite into space with a long-range rocket launched in December 2012.
The North’s recent activity comes amid a long-standing diplomatic stalemate. Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.