Seoul: North Korea said today it had successfully put a satellite into orbit, with a rocket launch widely condemned as another defiant step towards a missile capable of striking the US mainland.
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 barely a month ago.
There was no immediate external confirmation that the final stage of the satellite-bearing rocket had successfully achieved orbit, although the US Strategic Command said it had tracked “the missile launch into space”.
In a special state TV broadcast, a female North Korean announcer, wearing a traditional Korean hanbok dress, hailed the “epochal” launch, personally ordered by leader Kim Jong-Un, as a major success.
While stressing 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 UN chief Ban Ki-moon calling the launch “deeply deplorable” and US Secretary of State John Kerry denouncing a “flagrant violation” of UN resolutions.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye urged the UN Security Council to respond quickly with “strong punitive measures”.
Permanent Security Council members Britain, France and Russia all expressed anger and concern, while North Korea’s main diplomatic protector China voiced “regret”.
A surge in military tensions on the Korean peninsula looked likely, with South Korean and US defence officials announcing talks on the deployment of an advanced US missile defence system in South Korea to counter the growing threat from North Korea.
“It is time to move forward on this issue,” said Thomas Vandal, commander of the Eighth US Army based in South Korea.
As well as North Korea, China and Russia are both strongly opposed to any such deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in the region.
“When pursuing its own security, one country should not impair others’ security interests,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying of the defence system, adding such moves would escalate tensions on the peninsula and damage regional peace and stability.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, said
upcoming South Korea-US military exercises, which infuriate Pyongyang every year, would be the largest ever held.
Today’s rocket, carrying an Earth observation satellite, blasted off at around 9:00 am Pyongyang time and, according to state TV, achieved orbit 10 minutes later.
Both South Korea and Japan had threatened to shoot it down if it encroached on their territory.
Multiple UN Security Council resolutions proscribe North Korea’s development of its ballistic missile programme, and its rockets are considered dual-use technology with both civil and military applications.
The United States and its allies had warned Pyongyang it would pay a heavy price for pushing ahead with the launch, but analysts said the North’s timing was intended to minimise the repercussions.
“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.
China has been resisting the US-led effort to tighten the economic screws on its maverick neighbour.
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.
Despite Pyongyang’s bellicose claims to the contrary, the North is still seen as being years away from developing a credible inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).
A key challenge it faces is mastering the re-entry technology required to deliver a payload as far away as the US.
“An ICBM warhead, unlike a satellite, needs to come down as well as go up,” said aerospace engineer John Schilling, who has closely followed the North’s missile programme.
“North Korea has never demonstrated the ability to build a re-entry vehicle that can survive at even half the speed an ICBM would require,” Schilling said.
“If and when they do, what is presently a theoretical threat will become very real and alarming,” he added.