Days after it signaled that an upcoming launch might be delayed, North Korea fired a long-range rocket, heightening regional concerns about its growing ability to threaten its neighbors. North Korean state media said it had launched a weather satellite, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, confirmed that the rocket appeared to have successfully put an object into orbit.
The launch, which allowed Pyongyang to test its ballistic-missile capability in defiance of U.N. restrictions, angered the U.S. and its Northeast Asian allies. The White House called the launch “a highly provocative act that threatens regional security.” South Korea Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan called the launch “a threat to peace on the Korean Peninsula and around the world,” the Yonhap News Agency reported, while Japan called it “intolerable.” The U.N. Security Council passed resolutions banning North Korea from such launches after its nuclear tests in 2006 and ’09.
Unlike a similar attempt in April, which exploded shortly into its flight, stages of the Unha 3 rocket launched Wednesday landed in the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean Peninsula, and 300 km east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean, Japanese officials said. That would make it North Korea’s most successful missile flight to date, and a worrying sign that it has resolved technical flaws that have plagued earlier launches. “Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” NORAD said.
China, North Korea’s neighbor and only significant ally, had said it was “concerned” about North Korea’s launch plan but refrained from condemning it beforehand, saying it hopes “all parties concerned can exercise calmness.” Pyongyang’s move comes just one month into China’s political transition, with Xi Jinping taking charge as General Secretary of the Communist Party and its military commission. But while the men at the top are changing in Beijing, there are no signs of a tougher stand toward Pyongyang. “I don’t see changes in China’s North Korea policies,” says Linda Jakobson, director of the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia. “They will continue to put their own concerns about instability erupting in North Korea before their objective of denuclearization.”
In a commentary published shortly after the launch, China’s state-run Xinhua news service called for a quick return to the six-party talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The long-dormant meetings between North and South Korea, China, Russia, the U.S. and Japan were last held in 2007. China, which has hosted the talks, has pushed for their continuation, though a 2009 North Korean missile launch and attacks on a South Korean navy ship and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 have blocked any resumption. While Wednesday’s launch will lead to further pressure on China to corral North Korea, China is unlikely to take any steps that might weaken its neighbor. Instead Beijing will look to the U.S. to compromise, says Fang Xiuyu, a North Korea expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. “The pivotal problem of the North Korean nuclear issue is North Korean–American relations,” Fang says. “If there is no improvement in North Korean–American relations, if North Korea’s security has no guarantee, neither China nor the U.S. can persuade North Korea to stop.”
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The launch coincides with events in North Korea marking the first anniversary of the death of leader Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17. It is the most prominent achievement of his youngest son and successor Kim Jong Un, who has reportedly purged several top military officers in an indication of potential challenges to his rule. After eluding his father for more than a decade, the satellite launch should help Kim Jong Un tighten his grip on power and offer a powerful tool for domestic propaganda. “I do see this very much as Kim Jong Un consolidating his position now as the head of the Kim dynasty,” Jakobson says.
The Japanese government says the missile flew over Okinawa, an indicator of North Korea’s ability to menace even the most distant Japanese islands. “The launch is intolerable to Japan, and the government lodges a strong protest to North Korea,” Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, said at a press conference. The launch comes just four days before Japan’s general election and a week before South Korea will elect a new President. While the likely impact on voting patterns is unknown, the subject of North Korea’s launch will surely dominate the final days of campaigning.
North Korea attempted to launch a satellite in 1998, and while that was widely believed to be a failure, the regime claimed success. A long-range-missile test in 2006 ended with an explosion shortly after liftoff, and a subsequent test in 2009 also ended in failure. While previous launches had been separated by years, the latest attempt comes just eight months after its failed April launch, raising questions of whether its engineers solved the earlier problems.
Pyongyang had initially announced a Dec. 10–22 launch period, but on Monday the government said it was pushing the window back to Dec. 29 after its technicians found a “technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module.” Wednesday’s launch within the original timetable came as something of a surprise, then, and displayed again the limits of outsiders to predict the behavior of the isolated regime, even with the aid of satellite imagery of the launch site on North Korea’s west coast. “We know very little, if anything, about North Korea,” says Jakobson. “This was just one more indication.”
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing