Defiant North Koreans launch rocket over Japan
April 7, 2009
SEOUL — North Korea defiantly launched a rocket over Japan on Sunday, claiming to have put a satellite in orbit even though other countries said the communist nation — which has been developing nuclear capabilities — was testing its ability to fire a long-range missile.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command, however, said no satellite was put into orbit.
"Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean," the commands said in a joint news release. "No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan."
The State Department could not say Sunday whether North Korea had put a satellite into orbit, but expected "third party" scientific organizations that track such launches to say soon whether they are tracking a satellite from the missile launch, a department spokesman said.
The commands said the launching vehicle posed no threat to North America or Hawaii and took no action in response to the rocket. Nor did Japan take action beyond condemning the launch. Japan had vowed to shoot down the rocket if it threatened the country.
The launch prompted swift condemnation from the United States and other countries, but caused little worry among U.S. troops stationed in the Pacific.
North Korea fired the Taepodong-2 missile at 11:30 a.m., according to the U.S., South Korea and Japan. Japanese officials said the first stage of the rocket fell into the Sea of Japan about 175 miles west of Akita Prefecture at 11:37 a.m.
North Korea’s propaganda agency, KCNA, however, said its satellite was in orbit and transmitting revolutionary "paens" to communist founder Kim Il-sung and his son, current dictator Kim Jong-Il.
"He severed the chains of the masses, brought them liberty, The sun of Korea today, democratic and free," were among lyrics referring to Kim Jong-Il, as reported by the British online news site Telegraph.co.uk.
Countries around the world, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and even China, considered an ally of North Korea, had tried to dissuade the reclusive nation from launching the rocket.
President Barack Obama said the launch posed a threat to the northeast Asia region and to international security.
"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," he said in a statement from Prague.
He said the launch was a "clear violation" of a United Nations Security Council resolution banning North Korea from conducting any ballistic missile-related activities. The U.S. planned to immediately consult with South Korea, Japan and other allies in the region, he said. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late Sunday.
South Korea, in a news release, echoed Obama’s words and criticized impoverished North Korea for spending money on a long-range rocket instead of relieving food shortages. The government was taking necessary steps to counter future provocation from North Korea, and was closely consulting with the United Nations and other countries, the press release said.
U.S. military commands and State Department officials in South Korea and Japan referred all questions about the rocket launch to Washington.
Troops at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan in Seoul dismissed the launch as a cry for attention from North Korea, and said they had been paying little, if any, attention to it.
"Nobody’s really talking about it," said Spc. Josh Fischer.
Staff Sgt. Milton Santiago, stationed at Camp Humphreys south of Seoul, said he thinks North Korea launched the rocket "just to flex its muscles" and test the new Obama administration.
He said he never worried about the launch, because it was well-publicized and being watched closely by the international community.
"I’m more worried about that sucker-punch that we didn’t know was coming," he said.
Staff Sgt. Mark Steinmetz, stationed at Osan Air Base south of Seoul, said the U.S. military would have taken civilians off the peninsula if there was a danger of the rocket launch escalating into war.
"This whole place would be on lockdown. We’d be on high alert," he said. "We wouldn’t be moving around on the weekend."
Outside Yongsan, many South Koreans spent the balmy spring Sunday outdoors. But many people nervously watched television reports about the launch, which some said made them believe their neighbor was more powerful than they thought.
Shin Eun-ju, a 38-year-old cosmetics consultant, said she didn’t think North Korea would launch the rocket. Now, she’s afraid of what the communist nation can do, especially if it decides to fire a nuclear warhead.
"North Korea does so many outrageous things unexpectedly," she said. "That is scary, I hope they are not so stupid to do this."
News that North Korea launched the rocket surprised Son Kyung-sook, a 55-year-old housewife.
"They are running crazy and wild. Now I am worried about our safety and our nation," she said.
At Yokota Air Base, Japan, the base’s televised command channel reported no warnings or advisories after the launch. About a dozen people were interviewed, but all declined to give their names. Most felt Kim Jong Il was simply using the incident to gain attention on the world stage.
"It’s a little unsettling just because we’re so close. But I don’t think he’d be that stupid to shoot a missile at Tokyo," said one airman who asked not to be identified.
The U.S. deployed two missile-intercepting destroyers from Busan last week to monitor the launch, although an anonymous U.S. military spokesman wouldn’t reveal their destination. Japan also launched three destroyers in anticipation of the launch, and assigned PAC-3 missiles to nine locations across the country.
Hwang Hae-rym, Jeff Schogol, Vince Little and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.