By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 5, 2009
TOKYO, April 5 -- North Korea launched a long-range missile Sunday morning, defying repeated international warnings, worrying its neighbors and setting up the prospect of increased sanctions.
The launch, from a base on the country's northeast coast, came shortly after 10:30 p.m. Saturday EDT, the U.S. State Department reported.
The three-stage rocket flew over Japan, with its first two booster stages falling harmlessly into the Sea of Japan -- also known as the East Sea -- and Pacific Ocean, respectively.
North Korea said the "peaceful" launch would put a communications satellite into orbit, and South Korean officials confirmed that the rocket was carrying a satellite. But President Obama called it a "provocative act" with which North Korea has "further isolated itself from the community of nations."
The apparently successful launch of the Taepodong-2 missile, which can fly as far as the western United States, came on its second test. The first, in 2006, failed after less than a minute. Experts said North Korea has been working on long-range missile development with Iran, which successfully launched a similar missile in February.
North Korea announced about four hours after the launch that it had succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit. "The satellite is rotating normally in its orbit," the Korean Central News Agency reported.
But there was no immediate confirmation of that from other governments. North Korea claimed in 1998, when it launched a Taepodong-1 missile, that it had succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit. The U.S. government later said the claim was false.
Japan's top government spokesman said the launch was "extremely regrettable." Takeo Kawamura added, "Even if it is a satellite launch, it is a breach of U.N. resolutions."
Obama echoed that point, calling it "a clear violation" of a resolution barring North Korea from any activities related to ballistic missiles.
South Korea, which had repeatedly asked the North not to launch the missile, reacted more in sadness than in anger.
"We cannot help but feel shame and be disappointed at North Korea's reckless behavior," said Lee Dong-kwan, a government spokesman.
"We are greatly disappointed that North Korea was willing to spend tremendous amounts of money in launching the rocket in spite of the food shortages they face," added Yu Myung-hwan, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade. North Korea's struggling economy and chronic need for food aid have also complicated relations on the Korean Peninsula.
At the United Nations, the Security Council announced that it would convene Sunday afternoon to discuss the launch.
Diplomats there had been privately discussing a possible resolution that could tighten enforcement of existing sanctions on the communist nation. The country already faced demands and sanctions under a council resolution passed in 2006, after a North Korean nuclear test. New sanctions seemed unlikely in the face of probable resistance from China, North Korea's closest ally, and Russia.
South Korea said Sunday that the trajectory of the launch was consistent with an attempt to put the satellite into orbit. It was not immediately clear whether the payload had reached orbit.
Obama had said Friday that the launch would "put enormous strains" on multination negotiations with North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. He added that the United States will "take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can't threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity."
North Korea, in turn, warned that it will pull out of those talks if the launch prompts any move toward new U.N. sanctions.
Staff writers Scott Wilson, Mary Beth Sheridan and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo and Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.