SEOUL — Defiant as always, North Korea fired a long-range rocket Wednesday that flew over Japan and splashed down near the Philippines, drawing international scorn and raising worries about a new capability for a country that has persistently pursued nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang claimed it was putting a peaceful satellite into orbit, but most of the world was calling the launch a ballistic missile test. However, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that the rocket did put something into space.
Japan called the launch a “grave provocation” and “extremely deplorable,” while the White House vowed to pursue “appropriate action.” The U.N. secretary-general offered strong condemnation.
Even China took the unusual step of criticizing Pyongyang for not abiding by U.N. Security Council resolutions banning missile launches, while recognizing its right to the peaceful use of space. At the same time, Beijing criticized South Korea, Japan and the United States for not taking Pyongyang’s word that it was putting up a satellite.
The U.N. Security Council, which has tried to rein in the North’s behavior numerous times, condemned the launch after a closed-door meeting Wednesday and said it will urgently consider “an appropriate response,” The Associated Press reported.
“The international community must work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences,” the statement read.
The rocket was launched from the same snow-covered pad where North Korea’s last attempt ended soon after liftoff when the rocket broke up and exploded, an embarrassment that the communist country admitted in a rare show of candor.
Wednesday’s launch came as a small surprise. Although the North announced a two-week launch window Monday, it said it was extending a few days due to last-minute problems.
Japan already had deployed Aegis-class destroyers — one to the Sea of Japan and two to the East China Sea — and had Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile interceptors at four sites around Tokyo and three on Okinawa, according to a Ministry of Defense official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The U.S., which has beefed up several capabilities in South Korea over the past year, did not say what measures it took, but they almost certainly included ships and missile-defense systems.
Navy 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Ron Steiner issued a statement saying U.S. ships were poised to respond to any tasks “across the full spectrum of operations.”
“We will continue to evaluate our force posture and make changes as needed to fulfill our commitments to defend United States territory, our allies and our national interest,” Steiner said.
All three stages of the rocket fired, indicating improvements in the North’s missile technology. While the distance it flew was only about a third of what would be needed to reach the American West Coast, it still was a worrying improvement in range, given long speculation that the North’s goal is to build a missile capable of reaching the continental United States.
“Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” a NORAD statement said. “At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”
North Korea is a long way from posing a credible threat to the continental United States, said missile defense expert Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“This is a significant development, but not one that should cause people any serious alarm,” he said.
Among other things, North Korea lacks a nuclear warhead that could survive a rocket ride, as well as crucial targeting and reentry systems. And the Unha-3 rocket that lifted off Wednesday is too massive to be launched from a silo, making it an easy target for a last-resort U.S. strike if North Korea made threatening moves, he said.
The most worrying sign is the speed with which a successful launch followed the failed April attempt, Postol said.
“It indicates they may be able to manufacture components of this rocket at a higher rate than appeared to be the case earlier,” he said. “It means they could have a faster than expected launch schedule if they choose to work toward modifying it in the future and converting it from a launch vehicle to an ICBM.”
The mid-morning launch sparked a flurry of high-level meetings from Seoul to Tokyo to Washington. Japan issued a strong protest to North Korea after the rocket overflew Okinawa.
“The launch by North Korea despite such efforts is a grave provocation from the security point of view as it undermines the peace and stability of the region including Japan,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said in a statement. “The launch is extremely deplorable …”
South Korean leaders huddled among themselves and with U.S. Forces Korea’s top brass. The rest of the citizenry — long accustomed to North Korea’s threats — appeared to be concerned but far from panicked, with next Wednesday’s presidential election looming.
Park Junchel, a village representative on Baekyneong Island, said residents of the border island — located within sight of North Korea — were far more worried about repeated incursions by Chinese fishing boats into South Korean waters than Pyongyang’s latest provocation.
At Osan Air Base, few patrons at the food court around noon paid attention to a brief CNN breaking news alert about the North Korean rocket.
It was unclear why North Korea chose now to conduct the launch, but speculation centered on a celebration of sorts for next Monday’s first anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s assumption of power following the death of his father and a move to further consolidate his clout with the powerful military.
If nothing else, it provides further evidence that Kim is continuing the policies of confrontation and provocation that the reclusive communist country has pursued for decades.
And it could be yet another attempt at brinksmanship to wring aid and other concessions from the West, a strategy it has long employed while using its worrying nuclear weapons program as leverage. Already a poor country, the North traditionally pumps the lion’s share of its resources into its military, at the expense of the general populace.
Baek Seung Joo, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said the launch would undoubtedly provoke additional international sanctions against North Korea, but internally it would be a success for Pyongyang and for Kim Jong Un.
Under U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, enacted in 2006 and 2009 following nuclear tests, North Korea is obliged to halt its nuclear testing and refrain from launching missiles.
Stars and Stripes reporters Chris Carroll, Hana Kusumoto, Matt Burke and Armando Limon contributed to this report.