NEW YORK/PYONGYANGBEIJING – North Korea said yesterday it had successfully put a satellite into orbit, with a rocket launch widely condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test for a weapons delivery system to strike the US mainland.
Despite Pyongyang’s insistence on scientific space missions, its rockets are considered dual-use technology with both civil and military applications.
The launch, which violated multiple UN resolutions, amounted to the North doubling down against an international community already struggling to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear test a month ago.
There was no immediate external confirmation that the final stage of the satellite-bearing rocket had successfully achieved orbit, although a US defence official said the launch vehicle “appears to have reached space.”
In a special state TV broadcast, a female North Korean announcer, wearing a traditional Korean hanbok dress, said the “epochal” launch, personally ordered by leader Kim Jong-Un, had “successfully put our Earth observation satellite. . .into orbit.”
While stressing that the launch represented the legitimate exercise of North Korea’s right to the “peaceful and independent” use of space, she also noted that it marked a breakthrough in boosting national “defence capability.”
Condemnation was swift, with the United States calling the launch “destabilising and provocative”, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slammed it as “absolutely intolerable.”
The United States, along with allies like South Korea and Japan, had warned Pyongyang it would pay a heavy price for pushing ahead with launch, but analysts said the North’s timing was carefully calculated to minimise the repercussions.
China expressed regrets after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched the satellite, calling for calmness to avoid further escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“The DPRK should have been entitled to peaceful use of outer space, but this right is currently restricted by the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, in response to a question on the DPRK’s announcement on the launch of satellite Kwangmyongsong-4.
China was regretful that the DPRK insisted on launching the satellite, based on the ballistic missile technology, despite universal opposition of the international community, the spokesperson said.
Hua called all sides concerned to “remain calm, act cautiously, prevent from taking moves that could further increase tensions on the peninsula, and make joint efforts to safeguard regional peace and stability.”
“China always holds that the way to long-lasting peace and stability on the peninsula can be found only through dialogues and consultations,” Hua said, urging all sides concerned to resume contact and dialogue as soon as possible.
In New York, diplomats said the UN Security Council would meet in emergency session later yesterday to discuss what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described as a “deeply deplorable” development.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the Council should respond quickly with “strong punitive measures.”
The rocket, carrying an Earth observation satellite, took off at around 9:00 am Pyongyang time (0030 GMT) and, according to state TV, achieved orbit 10 minutes later.
With the international community still struggling to find a united response to the North’s January 6 nuclear test, the rocket launch – while provocative – is unlikely to substantially up the punitive ante.
“North Korea likely calculates that a launch so soon after the nuclear test will probably only incrementally affect the UN sanctions arising from that test,” said Alison Evans a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s.
North Korea’s chief diplomatic ally, China, which has been resisting the US push for tougher sanctions, reacted briefly to the launch with a simple expression of “regret.”
While infuriated by North Korea’s refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions, China’s overriding concern is avoiding a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and the possibility of a US-allied unified Korea on its border.
North Korea last launched a long-range rocket in December 2012, placing a similar Earth observation satellite in orbit.
Western intelligence experts say that satellite has never functioned properly, fuelling suspicion of the mission’s scientific veneer. – AFP/Xinhua/HR.