The United Nations on Sunday condemned North Korea’s satellite launch as a “dangerous and serious” violation of international restrictions, and threatened new sanctions aimed at dissuading the rogue nation from building missiles capable of delivering weapons against distant adversaries, including the United States.
The launch followed North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear device last month, putting new pressure on the United States and its threatened ally South Korea to take steps that could include deploying a missile defense capability that is firmly opposed by China.
After an emergency meeting at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Sunday, members of the Security Council accused North Korea of defying repeated warnings with an action that constitutes “a clear threat to international peace and security.”
“The members of the Security Council strongly condemn this launch,” the council said in a statement read by Rafael Ramírez, the Venezuelan ambassador at the United Nations. Dismissing the North’s claim of peaceful intent, he described the satellite launch as a provocative step toward the “development of nuclear weapons delivery systems.”
But the Security Council provided no details on the nature of any new sanctions it may pursue against the country, which has ignored an array of existing punitive measures with a series of long-range rocket launches and nuclear weapons tests in recent years.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the launch was “deeply deplorable,” carried out “despite the united plea of the international community against such an act.”
The denunciations were accompanied by other signals that the fallout in the region may go beyond diplomatic measures.
The United States and South Korea signaled new interest in exploring the installation of a sophisticated U.S. antimissile system — a step that Seoul previously had resisted under pressure from China.
South Korean and U.S. military officials said Sunday that they had agreed to begin negotiations for the “earliest possible” deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that uses ground-based launchers to shoot down missiles.
“North Korea continues to develop their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and it is the responsibility of our alliance to maintain a strong defense against those threats,” Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said in a statement. “THAAD can add an important capability.”
Missile experts said the THAAD system is regarded as an effective defense against short- and medium-range missiles, meaning that it could protect South Korea from attack but would be of little use against long-range strikes, such as a missile aimed at the United States.
Saturday’s launch was widely seen as a cover for North Korean efforts to acquire intercontinental capability, although bringing a warhead back down through the atmosphere to hit a distant target is significantly more complex than sending a satellite into space.
The renewed discussions of deploying the THAAD system reflect rising anxiety in South Korea, where leaders may be less inclined to comply with warnings from China or trust Beijing’s assertions that it can keep North Korea in check.
The anti-missile system has been controversial in South Korea, which has increasingly close economic and diplomatic ties with China. South Korean officials worry that hosting the anti-missile batteries would annoy Beijing.
Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency last month that China hoped that South Korea “will handle the matter prudently.”
Beijing’s position was that all countries should consider the national interests of other nations in taking their own security into account, she said.
Russia also opposes the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.
“It would appear that South Korea has had enough,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
South Korea’s reluctance to allow the missile defense system “has everything to do with the politics and pressure that China has been putting on its southern neighbor,” Karako said. But the back-to-back nuclear test and satellite launch by the North is likely “to drive the United States and South Korea much closer together and further mute the effect of Chinese objections.”
China does not seem particularly keen to crack down on its neighbor. A commentary run by the state-run Xinhua news agency immediately after the launch said: “Amid criticism and condemnation, what should be borne in mind is that negotiations are the only viable solution to the predicament on the Korean Peninsula, as China has repeatedly pointed out.”
North Korea said Saturday that it had fired a Kwangmyongsong-4 (the name translates as “lode star”), a newer-model satellite than the one launched three years ago and one that it said was equipped with devices for Earth measurement and communication.
The rocket went missing from South Korean military radar in the sea near Jeju Island at 9:36 a.m., defense ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said, but the Japanese government said that the rocket passed over the southern islands of Okinawa at about 9:41 a.m. There were no reports of any debris falling on land.
“It cannot be business as usual,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters. “What’s important is that the Security Council unites. We are hopeful that China, like all council members, will see the grave threat to regional and international peace and security, see the importance of adopting tough, unprecedented measures, breaking new ground here, exceeding the expectations of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un.”
Anna Fifield reported from Tokyo.