A screen shows a rocket being launched from a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at North Korea's satellite control centre in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province, in this photo released by Kyodo, December 12, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Kyodo
North Korea fired a rocket that placed a satellite into orbit, defying international sanctions and showcasing the country's progress in ballistic missile technology.
The North America Aerospace Defense Command said in a statement that it detected the launch at 9:49 a.m. Korea time, after which the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea and the second dropped into the Philippine Sea. The US agency said the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit, after North Korea's official news agency said the Unha-3 rocket had successfully sent a satellite into space.
The development followed a failed rocket test in April that embarrassed new leader Kim Jong Un, who has been working to secure his hereditary position since the death of his father a year ago. Today's success could bolster North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and South Korea's defense minister said the regime is making progress toward another atomic weapons test.
"Nuclear weapons are meaningless without missile technology and vice-versa," said Kim Yeon Su, a professor at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul. "This launch is not just a single event. It is a window into Kim Jong Un's strategic thinking, his security strategy, which is highly worrying."
North Korea could conduct a nuclear test "within a short period of time," South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said in parliament, adding that the rocket fired today had a range of about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). Asian stocks stayed higher and the South Korean won was little changed following the launch.
China, North Korea's biggest ally, said it regrets the launch, adding to criticism from the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing that China wants the United Nations Security Council to react prudently and avoid escalating the situation.
The missile test came two days after North Korea said a glitch might force a postponement, and a week before South Korea's presidential election. Opposition candidate Moon Jae In criticized the outgoing government's intelligence as weak.
The Obama administration denounced the rocket test, with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor calling it "a highly provocative act" that jeopardizes regional security.
Kim, who succeeded his father Kim Jong Il a year ago, oversees a military-first state with 1.7 million of his 24 million people in the armed services. North Korea has twice detonated an atomic bomb, and the new leader has shown no readiness to respond to calls from the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to return to six-party talks aimed at getting the regime to abandon its nuclear program.
Spending on rockets
North Korea has spent about $1.3 billion on missile development this year, South Korean ruling party lawmaker Shon In Chun said in parliament today, without saying where she got her estimates. As much as $3.2 billion has been invested in nuclear weapons and missile development, equivalent to three years' supply of food for North Korea's citizens, she said.
"This indicates the ability to throw a missile and perhaps a payload over a long distance, but how accurately they could target that and whether they could marry it to a nuclear warhead, those are other questions," said Tim Huxley, executive director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia in Singapore. "Those are extremely difficult matters to engineer."
Japan was informed by the US of the North Korean launch at 9:52 a.m., Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters in Tokyo. The Philippines said it was told of the event by Japan and South Korea. South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak convened an emergency security meeting in response.
South Korean financial regulators met to discuss the event, while seeing a limited impact on financial markets. South Korea's benchmark Kospi Index closed up 0.6 percent, and the won appreciated 0.2 percent to 1,074.93 per dollar. Japan's Nikkei 225 Stock Average gained 0.6 percent.
Japan's Fujimura said the action "threatens the peace and security of the region and it is against relevant" UN Security Council resolutions. Japan plans to seek a new resolution after today's incident, he said. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged the Security Council to respond firmly and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said in a statement that the launch "is a clear violation" of the world body's restrictions against North Korea.
The UN tightened sanctions on North Korea in 2009 shortly after it fired a long-range rocket carrying a communications satellite that failed to enter orbit. The April rocket, which exploded minutes after liftoff, was intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim's grandfather, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.
"At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th anniversary of President Kim Il Sung," the Korean Central News Agency said in a statement.
"The regime will try to exploit all the propaganda value," after investing in missile technology for decades, Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group in Seoul, said in a Bloomberg Television interview.
Today's incident also serves as a reminder of the US deterrent in east Asia, with troops and bases stationed in Japan and South Korea. The Obama administration has strengthened the American presence throughout the region, stepping up port calls and broadening military cooperation, as well as seeking to increase commercial relations.
In Southeast Asia, the US has warned against any intimidation in resolving disputes between China and other nations over parts of the South China Sea.
"This launch actually gives the Obama administration a second credible reason for its pivot to Asia that's not directly China," said Rory Medcalf, director of the international security program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. "It's going to make it harder for China to denigrate the pivot to Asia as being simply a containment strategy."