- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China has called on all sides to maintain calm and exercise restraint following North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket.

A brief statement from the Foreign Ministry on Sunday said Beijing had noted the launch as well as the response from all sides concerned.

The statement said China hoped all parties would maintain “calm and restraint” and handle the matter appropriately. It called on all to work to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.

China is North Korea’s biggest source of economic aid and diplomatic support, and the statement said Beijing was willing to continue to place a “constructive role” in the matter.

The launch further throws in doubt the six-party negotiations hosted by China aimed at mothballing North Korea’s nuclear programs.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ North Korea fired a rocket over Japan on Sunday, defying Washington, Tokyo and other world leaders who suspect the launch was cover for a test of its long-range missile technology. President Barack Obama warned the move would further isolate the communist nation.

Liftoff took place at 11:30 a.m. (0230 GMT) from the coastal Musudan-ri launch pad in northeastern North Korea, the South Korean and U.S. governments said. The multistage rocket hurtled toward the Pacific, reaching Japanese airspace within seven minutes, but no debris appeared to hit its territory, officials in Tokyo said.

The U.N. Security Council approved an emergency session for Sunday afternoon in New York, following a request from Japan that came just minutes after the launch.

Sunday’s move was a bold act of defiance against President Barack Obama, Japanese leader Taro Aso, Hu Jintao of China and others who pressed Pyongyang in the days leading up to liftoff to call off a launch they said would threaten peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

“I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council,” Obama said in Prague, Czech Republic, calling on Pyongyang to refrain from further “provocative” actions.

North Korea claims its aim is to send an experimental “Kwangmyongsong-2” communications satellite into orbit in a peaceful bid to develop its space program.

The U.S., South Korea, Japan and others suspect the launch is a guise for testing the regime’s long-range missile technology _ one step toward eventually mounting a nuclear weapon on a missile capable of reaching Alaska and beyond.

They contend the launch violates a U.N. Security Council resolution barring the regime from ballistic missile activity, part of efforts to force North Korea to shelve its nuclear program and halt long-range missile tests.

State Department spokesman Fred Lash called the launch a clear violation of Resolution 1718, adopted five days after North Korea carried out a nuclear weapons test in 2006. The U.S. will “take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it cannot threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity,” he said late Saturday in Washington.

Japan’s U.N. mission immediately requested a meeting of the 15-nation council Sunday, spokesman Yutaka Arima said. Mexico’s mission to the United Nations set the meeting for 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT), spokesman Marco Morales said. Mexico holds the 15-nation council’s presidency this month.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regretted North Korea’s move “against strong international appeal” at a time when nuclear disarmament talks involving six nations remain stalled.

“Given the volatility in the region, as well as a stalemate in interaction among the concerned parties, such a launch is not conducive to efforts to promote dialogue, regional peace and stability,” Ban said in a statement from Paris.

At the United Nations, diplomats already have begun discussing ways to affirm existing sanctions on North Korea against its nuclear program and long-range missile tests.

However, diplomats said the U.S., Britain and France, each of which holds veto power on the 15-nation council, are unlikely to secure agreement on new sanctions in the face of probable resistance from China, North Korea’s closest ally, and Russia, the other two nations with veto power. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

In Japan, chief Cabinet spokesman Takeo Kawamura also said it was not immediately clear if the rocket was mounted with a satellite as North Korea has claimed.

In Seoul, an unnamed government official told the Yonhap news agency the trajectory of the rocket suggests it was mounted with a satellite but said it was unclear whether the bid to get the satellite into orbit was successful.

“Even if a satellite was launched, we see this as a ballistic missile test and we think this matter should be taken to the United Nations Security Council,” Kawamura said. “We are highly concerned by this matter.”

Resisting weeks of pressure to call off the launch, North Korea advised international aviation and maritime authorities last month of the rocket’s flight path.

The first stage of the rocket dropped about 175 miles (280 kilometers) off the western coast of Akita into the waters between Japan and the Korean peninsula. The second stage was aimed for the Pacific at a spot about 790 miles (1,270 kilometers) off Japan’s northeastern coast, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said in Tokyo.

Japan had threatened to shoot down any debris from the rocket if the launch went wrong, and positioned batteries of interceptor missiles on its coast and radar-equipped ships off its northern seas to monitor the launch.

North Korea warned Japan last week that any attempt to intercept its satellite would be considered a declaration of war.

No attempt at interception was made since no debris fell onto its territory, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said in Tokyo, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

However, in addition to calling for the Security Council meeting, Japan threatened to add more bilateral sanctions onto those it imposed after the July 2006 launch of a similar Taepodong-2 long-range missile that fizzled 42 seconds after takeoff.

“Our primary concern is to confirm safety and gather information,” Aso told a news conference at his Tokyo office Sunday.

South Korea, which technically remains at war with the North because their three-year conflict ended in 1953 in a truce rather than a peace treaty, put its forces on heightened alert.

President Lee Myung-bak ordered the South Korean military on alert and bolstered joint vigilance with U.S. forces in case of any further provocation from the North, said Brig. Gen. Kim Jong-bae of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

North Korea, one of the world’s poorest nations, is led with absolute authority by leader Kim Jong Il, who is poised to preside over the first session of the country’s new parliament on Thursday. The appearance will be his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke last August.

Amid the controversy over the rocket launch, North Korea announced last week it would put two American reporters detained at the border with China on trial for allegedly entering the country illegally and engaging in “hostile acts.”

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture, were seized by North Korean soldiers on March 17.

___

Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jae-soon Chang in Seoul, Eric Talmadge in Tokyo, Pete Yost in Washington and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.


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