- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

UPDATED:

SEOUL | North Korea carried out its threatened launch of a long-range rocket over Japan on Sunday, defying international warnings and sparking an angry response from its Asian neighbors and the United States.

Japan immediately called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which said it would hold that meeting Sunday afternoon. South Korea decried the launch as a “reckless act.”

President Obama, in Europe for a NATO summit, had repeatedly warned the Pyongyang government not to go forward with what North Korea claimed was merely a satellite launch but other nations viewed as the test of a long-range ballistic missile that could conceivably carry a nuclear warhead.

“The launch today of a Taepodong-2 missile was a clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which expressly prohibits North Korea from conducting ballistic missile-related activities of any kind,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued from Prague.

“With this provocative act, North Korea has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint, and further isolated itself from the community of nations.”

U.S. officials said the satellite failed to reach orbit, a sign that Pyongyang has not yet reached the ranks of major military powers, but that the launch itself was a violation of U.N. resolutions.

“There have been a number of instances now where the North Koreans have failed in what theyre trying to do,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with President Obama in Europe.

North Korea launched the three-stage rocket at 10:30 p.m. Saturday EST. The launch was announced by Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency and confirmed by the U.S. and South Korean governments.

”We cannot withhold our regrets and disappointment that North Korea has caused such a serious threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the world by firing a long-range rocket, when the entire world is joining efforts to overcome the global economic crisis,” said Lee Dong-kwan, a spokesman for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, according to the Yonhap news agency.

China’s reaction was noticeably less alarmed than that of the U.S., Japan and South Korea, an indication that it may be difficult to get China’s support for tough new sanctions.

“We have taken notice of the launching activity by the DPRK [North Korea] this morning, and also noticed responses from relevant sides,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told the Xinhua news agency. “We hope relevant parties to keep calm and restraint, properly handle this issue, and work together to safeguard peace and stability of the region.”

Pyongyang announced last month that it would launch the Unha-2 (”Galaxy 2”) - carrying the Kwangmyongsong-2 (”Bright Star-2”) communications satellite. While intelligence agencies have noted that the bulbous nose on the end of the missile does indeed resemble that of a satellite rather than a warhead, the Unha-2 is virtually the same as the Taepodong-2, a strategic launch vehicle.

Although the North is technically prohibited from ballistic-missile programs under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted following long-range missile and nuclear tests in 2006, experts at a seminar held in Seoul on Friday said there is a gray area, as the U.N. also permits peaceful space exploration.

Japan said the second stage of the rocket booster splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, indicating the launch had been a success.

“The projectile launched from North Korea today appears to have passed over towards the Pacific,” the office of the Japanese prime minister said in a statement, according to the Reuters news agency.

“It is extremely regrettable that North Korea went ahead with the launch … and we protest strongly,” said Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Takeo Kawamura.

North Korea had given warning that it would send up the rocket sometime between April 4 and April 8. A predicted Saturday launch was apparently delayed by high winds.

North Korea’s motivation in carrying out the launch is unclear, although there has been speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke in August, was seeking a show of strength to bolster his position. North Korea also may have wanted to test the Obama administration and try to improve its bargaining position in future talks. And it may have been seeking to advertise its missile technology to potential customers.

What the U.S., Japan and South Korea can do to punish Pyongyang may be limited. North Korea is holding two U.S. reporters who strayed into North Korea from China last month, while a South Korean worker at the Kaesong industrial complex in the North has also been detained.

“I don’t expect any serious penalties in the U.N. Security Council, due to opposition from China and Russia,” said Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “We expect another round of bilateral talks between [North Korea and U.S.]. That is what North Korea wants, and that is what [U.S. envoy Stephen] Bosworth has mentioned: that sanctions or penalties are not only way to handle North Korea. He is considering incentives.”

There have been scattered protests in Seoul by right-wing groups opposing the launch, but most South Koreans — whose capital lies within artillery range of Seoul — seemed unperturbed by the threat posed by a long-range missile.

Tokyo has been far more jittery. There were two false alarms on Saturday that a launch had gone ahead. Despite mulling moves to shoot down the missile should it skim Japanese airspace, early reports did not indicate any action by Tokyo.

Rep. Howard L. Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, called the launch “alarming.”

“The test is an unnecessary provocation that raises tensions in the region, and I urge the North Koreans to stop using their missile and [weapons of mass destruction] programs to threaten their neighbors and the rest of the world. Since the launch violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, I urge the Security Council to take strong and concerted action to demonstrate that Pyongyang’s actions are unacceptable. I especially call on both China and Russia to work constructively with other members of the Security Council to show that the world is united in condemning North Korea’s disturbing behavior,” Mr. Berman said.

Mr. Obama said, “We will immediately consult with our allies in the region, including Japan and the Republic of Korea, and members of the U.N. Security Council to bring this matter before the council.”

Meanwhile, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said the launch was “an impressive technological achievement.”

“It likely represents, however, the upper limits of what the country can do by stretching and adapting the Scud technology they acquired from the former Soviet Union. This small, impoverished nation would need to make three key additional breakthroughs to turn this launch vehicle into a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the continental United States.”

Mr. Cirincione said the North Korean satellite appeared to weigh between 330 and 440 pounds and was put into a low-Earth orbit about 340 miles high. By comparison, on Friday a U.S. Air Force Atlas 5 rocket on a routine launch sent a 12,790-pound satellite into a geostationary orbit roughly 22,500 miles above the Earth.

Barbara Slavin reported from Washington.

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