Defying weeks of international pressure, North Korea launched a multistage rocket today, a move that the U.S. and its allies fear masked a test of its ability to deliver nuclear weapons.
Reaction was swift and harsh to the launch from a site in the country’s northeast. The Obama administration, confronted by an early foreign-policy challenge, said the launch violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and that the U.S. would take steps to enforce the message that North Korea cannot threaten its neighbors with impunity.
“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,” President Obama said in a statement issued in Prague, Czech Republic, the latest stop on his European tour.
South Korea denounced the act as “reckless.” Japan, angered that the rocket’s trajectory took it over the northern part of its main island before landing in the Pacific Ocean, called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
South Korean government officials said a rocket was launched about 11:30 a.m. (about 7:30 p.m. PDT) on the second day of a five-day window that it had announced. Pyongyang had said it planned to put a communications satellite into space. But many analysts predicted that the launch would be a test of the regime’s ability to deliver a warhead with the three-stage Taepodong 2, which is estimated to have a range of more than 4,000 miles. Some analysts say that with a light payload, it could reach the western U.S.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted government officials in Seoul as saying that the rocket carried a satellite. That report was not immediately confirmed, nor was it clear whether it was a Taepodong 2 and if a satellite reached orbit.
A U.S. defense official said early today that preliminary data indicated the rocket failed to put a satellite into orbit.
“It did not appear to be a success,” the official said, speaking of the assessment on condition of anonymity. “But we are still analyzing the data.”
Japanese government officials said the rocket, launched from North Korea’s Musudan-ri site, flew over two northern prefectures about seven minutes later. The first debris from the multistage rocket fell into the Sea of Japan about 160 miles west of Akita prefecture, they said. More debris fell about 13 minutes after launch into the Pacific Ocean about 800 miles east of Japan.
Japan stopped tracking the rocket at a distance of about 1,200 miles, according to a government website.
In Washington, the State Department acknowledged several hours later that the U.S. had not yet determined where the rocket splashed down.
This morning, the rogue state had appeared to activate its rocket-tracking radar system just minutes before the start of the 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. window given for the launch, according to a South Korean news agency.
East Asia had been on high alert for days as the U.S., Japan and South Korea continued to monitor North Korea. All three nations dispatched ships armed with missile interceptors to the ocean around the Korean peninsula.
Jittery military officials in Tokyo acknowledged that they had twice incorrectly announced Saturday that the rocket had been launched.
Some experts said that even if North Korea launched a satellite, it would achieve a much-sought military objective because satellite and missile use a similar launch vehicle. A successful satellite launch could pave the way for a missile test.
“North Korea is going to launch this rocket as a way to develop its ICBM capabilities,” Choi Choon-heum, a senior research fellow at the Seoul-based Korean Institute for National Unification, said before the launch.
“It’s not important to figure out whether this is a satellite or long-range missile. This will be a disguised test fire of a low-range ballistic missile. This is a nation that desires to be nuclear armed.”
North Korea conducted the launch shortly before Obama was to deliver a speech on arms control in Prague. Its actions appeared timed to gain maximum attention from U.S. officials, an outcome many analysts and experts have said is high on Pyongyang’s list of objectives.
Despite accusations that it was violating Security Council resolutions, North Korea said that a 1967 U.N. treaty gave it the right to launch a satellite.
North Korea has used its fledgling nuclear program as a tool of diplomacy. It made concessions to remove itself from the Bush administration’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
“Given its past track record, North Korea wants to use this launch to lure the United States into direct negotiations,” said Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group think tank. “And the U.S. will probably come to the table this time. If it doesn’t, it loses a valuable diplomacy tool.
“I admire them for their bargaining strategy,” he said. “They usually do quite well, even with a weak hand.”
Analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been banking on a successful launch to rally public support despite hardships in the isolated society, including poverty and widespread food shortages. They say a successful launch would be a global advertisement for its arms sales to Third World countries.
In Seoul on Saturday, more than 100 anti-North Korea activists had burned a miniature model of a Taepodong 2 missile and clashed with police, according to South Korean news reports.
The rocket launch was intended to precede a gathering Thursday of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, in which the legislative body would rubber-stamp leader Kim’s hold on power in the wake of elections last month.
In 1998, North Korea used what officials claimed was a satellite launch to herald Kim’s ascension to power. The satellite was intended to transmit back to Earth the “Song of General Kim Jong Il” and Morse code signals for juche, the regime’s political ideology.
But analysts never detected a satellite and believe that rocket’s last stage failed.
“That satellite launch was the prelude to Kim’s coming-out party, when he took the reins as the North Korean leader,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert with the Asia Foundation.
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Robert Ourlian in Washington, special correspondent Yuriko Nagano in Tokyo and Ju-min Park of the Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.