SEOUL: Defiant North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday, disregarding months of pressure from the United States and Washington’s allies over what they said was an illegal missile test.
With nerves jangled across the globe, US President Barack Obama called for a strong international response and the UN Security Council opened an emergency meeting to debate what South Korea denounced as a “reckless” threat to world security.
For several tense minutes, the rocket flew through the airspace of Japan, which had given its military authority to shoot down any threat to its soil — something the North Koreans had warned would be seen as an act of war.
And while Japan said the booster rockets fell harmlessly into the water, and the US and Seoul said the launch had failed to get its payload into orbit, a former director of the US missile defence agency described the 0230 GMT launch as a partial technological success.
“It says, first of all, they had successful first staging and (were) able to control the rocket through staging,” retired General Henry Obering told CNN television.
The official KCNA news agency said North Korea leader Kim Jong-Il was present at the launch site as it put a communications satellite into orbit — broadcasting “immortal revolutionary songs.”
“The launch vehicle and satellite, developed by our own technology, is a proud fruit of our struggle to bring the nation’s space technology to a higher level,” the agency said.
The US North American Aerospace Defence Command and the US Northern Command denied the secretive communist regime’s claims.
“Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan,” also known as the East Sea, they said.
“The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean,” they said. “No object entered orbit.”
Ultimately what concerned the US and its allies was less the payload than the rocket carrying it, which Obama said was a Taepodong-2 — the North’s longest-range missile, capable in theory of reaching US soil in Alaska or Hawaii.
“Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something,” Obama said in a speech in Prague on ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
He called the rocket launch a “provocation” that required a strong international response by the Security Council.
“Relevant parties must… avoid taking actions that could make the situation even more tense,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in a statement posted on the foreign ministry website.
Russia also urged calm while a report said Moscow was studying whether Pyongyang had broken any UN Security Council resolutions.
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told reporters on her way to the closed-doors Security Council meeting that it offered an opportunity to secure agreement on “strong collective action.”
Several diplomats said they expected lengthy bargaining before agreement could be reached on a text, which may not emerge Sunday.
“France strongly condemns the launch,” its ambassador to the UN Jean-Maurice Ripert told reporters. “We expect the Council to unanimously condemn what has happened and respond to this provocation and violation of international law.”
The North tested the Taepodong-2, which has an estimated range of 4,100 miles (6,700 kilometres), and an atomic bomb in 2006, during six-nation disarmament talks.
The Security Council then passed Resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on the North, and warned against further nuclear or missile tests.
Pyongyang has said any new referral to the council now would all but spell the end of the long-running disarmament negotiations.
US Republican legislator Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called for the United States to toughen conditions for future aid to North Korea.
She said she would introduce legislation requiring Washington to verify Pyongyang is giving up its nuclear and missile programs and improving human rights before any non-humanitarian aid is delivered or diplomatic relations established.
“North Korea’s continued belligerence and contempt for its international obligations cannot go unanswered,” said the Cuban-American, an outspoken critic of communism.
The United States and North Korea have decades of hostility between them, dating back to the 1950-1953 Korean war which ended without a peace treaty, and Pyongyang’s regime has often worried its neighbours.
“This is provocative activity which threatens stability and peace on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan said.
The other five nations in the disarmament talks had all called on North Korea to refrain from the launch, including China.
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