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North Korea’s rocket launch heightens tensions around the world

North Korea provoked global rebuke and talk of erecting new anti-missile defences on the Korean peninsula after the isolated nation successfully launched a rocket into space and placed a small satellite into orbit.

The rocket, widely seen as a front for a ballistic missile, lifted off Sunday at 9 a.m., Pyongyang time, on a southward trajectory from the west coast of North Korea. It dropped booster stages alongside and below the Korean peninsula before delivering a small satellite into orbit 500 kilometres above the Earth nearly 10 minutes later. In the U.S., scientists tracked two new objects in space, which appeared to be the satellite and the rocket’s third stage.

The country’s sixth rocket test, and second successful launch, raised fears that a nuclear-equipped Pyongyang is perfecting the missile technology to deliver a nuclear bomb nearly 10,000 kilometres away – far enough to wreak devastation on North America and Europe.

Critics say the country remains far from achieving that capability.

But the launch prompted renewed calls for more punitive sanctions against North Korea, which had already raised international ire with its fourth nuclear test a month ago, as fears grow that Pyongyang will enter a new era of far deadlier military capability.

The U.S., Japan, Russia, France and South Korea strongly denounced the launch, which contravened resolutions made by the United Nations Security Council. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “deeply deplorable.” North Korea is now “threatening not only the security of the Korean peninsula, but that of the region and the United States as well,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch constituted “a grave provocative action in terms of Japan’s security.”

In a measure of the tensions North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has stoked, South Korea said it would explore installation of the U.S.-designed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which can use one missile to shoot down another.

“It has been decided to formally start talks on the possibility of deploying the THAAD system to South Korea as part of steps to bolster the missile defence of the Korea-U.S. alliance,” Yoo Jeh-seung, South Korea’s deputy defence minister for policy, said Sunday.

Bringing that technology to South Korea would raise the ante for militarization in Asia and almost certainly elevate regional tensions, including with China.

But South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the North Korean launch “an unacceptable provocation,” while calling for “strong sanctions” against the country.

China, however, has remained lukewarm to the idea, with its Foreign Ministry saying Sunday only that it “regrets” the rocket launch. A commentary published by the state-run Xinhua news said bluntly: “Sanctions are definitely not the aim. ... Negotiations are the only viable solution to the predicament on the Korean Peninsula.”

China remains the linchpin to any new sanctions, since it is the partner for the vast majority of North Korea’s trade.

Pyongyang has called its rocket an instrument of peaceful science, and the state-run Korean Central News Agency said it had deployed a satellite equipped with “measuring apparatuses and telecommunications apparatuses needed for observing the earth.”

Outside the country, however, the launch is largely seen as a test of a barely disguised inter-continental ballistic missile. Historically, countries have often used the same rocket platforms to carry satellites and warheads.

But some have questioned the threat actually posed by the North Korean technology.

Though the country has spent two decades developing its Unha-3 rocket, its launch “is realistically no more than another staged event by the Hermit Kingdom,” said Ted Postol, an emeritus professor of science, technology and international security at MIT, and a prominent critic of U.S. missile defence systems.

“This ritual stoking of national anxiety has nothing to do with concerns about real security threats. Instead, it is about increasing the Pentagon’s already bloated arsenal with new, fantastically costly, and nearly useless weapons.”

The Unha-3 rocket simply does not have the size or capability to deliver a nuclear payload to the continental U.S., he said, and the upgrades required to achieve that power would take years, perhaps decades to complete.

North Korea also does not appear to possess a nuclear weapon small enough to load onto such a missile, he said.

“All technically refereed analyses outside of the U.S. government are in agreement – the Unha-3 cannot be converted to an ICBM capable of threatening the US mainland,” Prof. Postol said.

Nathan VanderKlippe

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches as a long-range rocket is launched in this still image taken from footage from KRT, Korea’s state-run television and released by the South Korean news agency Yonhap on Sunday. (Reuters)

China reacts

When veteran Chinese diplomat Wu Dawei left for North Korea last week, he most likely knew he had been dispatched on mission impossible: to persuade the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, to climb down from his threat to launch a rocket as part of his quest to develop ballistic missile technologies.

Not only did Mr. Kim ignore China’s entreaties, sending Mr. Wu home empty-handed. He did so emphatically, ordering the launch a day earlier than expected so that it fell on one of China’s most hallowed holidays, the eve of the Lunar New Year.

It is unclear how long President Xi Jinping of China will tolerate what some analysts here are calling the humiliation of his country at the hands of a capricious Mr. Kim. But there are no immediate signs that Beijing will radically change course and turn away from its traditional ally.

“It’s a bad result, it’s a humiliation,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University. “I think Kim Jong-un made many mistakes, and this is one of his major mistakes.” Even so, he added, “it’s hard to say what different approach China will take.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “regret” at the launch hours after it happened and counselled calm and cautious action, a tone that drew immediate ridicule among users of the Chinese social media site Weibo.

In contrast to calls from South Korea, Japan and the United States on Sunday for tougher sanctions against North Korea, China said early dialogue – meaning the resumption of talks among major powers and North Korea – was its preferred way to rein in Mr. Kim. Those negotiations, led by China and known as the six-party talks, fell apart in 2009 after North Korea walked out.

In response to the Foreign Ministry’s statement, one person on Weibo said: “I feel ‘regret’ for the Foreign Ministry.”

Another user said: “I have been racking my head but I simply can’t figure out why we have to offend everybody in the world to defend a rogue regime.”

Popular sentiment in China, where Mr. Kim has been maligned online as an overweight, bumptious neophyte, appears to run against the government’s public patience with the North Korean leader.

In a poll on Weibo conducted Friday and Saturday, 66 per cent of 8,000 respondents said they supported a strike by the United States to wipe out North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Eighteen per cent of those interviewed said they were against such a strike, and 16 per cent said they were neutral.

In a telling signal of official disapproval of the results, Chinese censors had deleted the poll by Sunday afternoon.

Despite its frustration with Mr. Kim and frosty personal relations – Mr. Xi has refused to meet with Mr. Kim – China is likely to continue putting up with his behaviour, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.

China was afraid of turning its recalcitrant ally into a worrisome enemy, he said.

New York Times News Service

A picture taken from North Korean TV and released by Yonhap on Sunday shows North Korea’s rocket launch of Earth-observation satellite Kwangmyongsong-4. North Korea said Sunday it had successfully put the satellite into orbit with a rocket launch. (Yonhap/AFP/Getty Images)

Emergency meeting at UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council on Sunday strongly condemned North Korea’s latest rocket launch and promised to take punitive steps, while Washington vowed to ensure the 15-nation body imposed “serious consequences” on Pyongyang as soon as possible.

“The members of the Security Council strongly condemned this launch,” Venezuelan Ambassador Rafael Dario Ramirez Carreno, president of the council this month, told reporters. He said the launch was “a serious violation.”

He added that the 15-nation council “restated their intent to develop significant measures in a new Security Council resolution in response to the nuclear test” in January, as well as Sunday’s rocket launch. He said they would work “expeditiously.”

Standing alongside her Japanese and South Korean counterparts, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters: “We will ensure that the Security Council imposes serious consequences. DPRK’s (North Korea) latest transgressions require our response to be even firmer.”

North Korea has been under UN sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006. It has conducted three more atomic tests since then, including the one last month, along with numerous ballistic missile launches.

The sanctions ban its work in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, blacklist a number of individuals and entities and bar the country’s leadership from importing luxury goods.

The United States and China began discussing a resolution to expand the existing sanctions after Pyongyang’s atom bomb test on Jan 6. Ms. Power said she hoped the council would have a draft resolution to vote on “as quickly as possible.”

Diplomats say Washington is closely consulting with Japan, South Korea, Britain and France on its discussions with China, while Beijing is keeping in close contact with fellow veto power Russia.

One diplomat said that Washington was hoping to tighten international restrictions on North Korea’s banking system, while Beijing was reluctant to support that for fear of worsening conditions in its impoverished neighbour.

“There will eventually be a sanctions resolution,” the diplomat said. “China wants any steps to be measured but it wants the council to send a clear message to DPRK (North Korea) that it must comply with council resolutions.”


This picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Sunday shows North Korea's rocket launch of the earth observation satellite Kwangmyong 4 at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (AFP Photo/KCNA via KNS)

Canada condemns the launch

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion called the launch “unwarranted, irresponsible and dangerous behaviour.”

“Any launch by North Korea using ballistic missile technology directly violates successive United Nations Security Council Resolutions. North Korea’s actions show a blatant disregard for its international obligations, and Canada calls on North Korea to cease these disruptive and provocative actions and to return to compliance with its international obligations,” Mr. Dion said in a statement.

“Canada strongly supports efforts underway in the UN Security Council to agree to significant measures to hold North Korea accountable for its actions.”

Satellite and rocket

North Korea’s controversial rocket launch put two objects in space, according to the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center. It is unclear if either is sending out signals. This is what is known about the launch so far.

North Korea launched what it said was its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite at 8:59 a.m. local time, after moving up its launch window, which was initially slated to begin on Feb. 8.

The launch vehicle was likely similar to the one used in North Korea’s last launch in December, 2012, since the satellite orbit and other details are similar, said John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and missile technology specialist.

The satellite North Korea launched in December, 2012, circles the Earth every 95 minutes, but no signal has ever been detected from the 100-kilogram hunk of black metal, which the North said was equipped with cameras to send images back to Earth.

U.S. officials and experts said it would likely take several days to determine if the satellite can stop tumbling in orbit and communicate with the ground.

North Korea launched the satellite on an 80-ton rocket called the Unha-3, or one that was very similar. The United States and its allies believe the launch was cover for a missile test, but some experts question whether the Unha-3 can be converted into an effective intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), that is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

The long-range rocket flew over the airspace of Japan’s Okinawa region, home to the U.S. 7th Fleet.


Video: North Korea celebrates rocket launch

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