TOKYO — North Korea on Sunday declared that it had successfully put an “earth observation satellite” into orbit under the direct orders of leader Kim Jong Un, and said it planned to launch “many more.”
Both the South Korean defense ministry and the Pentagon said that the rocket, launched at 9 a.m. North Korean time from a launch pad near the Chinese border, appeared to have successfully reached space.
The United States, Japan and South Korea immediately condemned the launch, a move widely seen as another step toward North Korea mastering the technology for making a missile capable of striking the mainland United States. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting for later Sunday to discuss how to respond to the country’s latest provocation.
But North Korea gloated about its most recent advance into space. It said it 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.
“Today’s success is a proud result of scientific achievement and an exercise of our legitimate right to space,” Ri Chun Hee, North Korea's most famous newsreader, who was brought out of retirement to announce last month’s nuclear test, declared in a special broadcast from Pyongyang following the launch.
“The success of Kwangmyongsong-4 launch is a groundbreaking event. The National Aerospace Development Administration plans to launch many more satellites following our national policy of focusing on the importance of science and technology,” she said.
Kim, the 33-year-old third-generation leader of North Korea, personally signed the order to launch on Saturday, Ri said. The satellite entered orbit after nine minutes and 46 seconds, she said in the broadcast on Korean Central Television.
The launch took place half an hour before the Republican presidential debate started, and candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) both urged China to get tough.
The rocket launch was expected — Pyongyang had given warnings to maritime and airspace authorities, and analysts had detected movement at its launch site — but coming just a month after a nuclear test, it nevertheless showed Kim’s continued willingness to defy the international community.
The rocket was projected to fly down South Korea’s west coast, with the first stage expected to splash down near the southern island of Jeju, while the second stage was forecast to go over the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa and in the sea east of the Philippines. Television stations in Japan and South Korea showed footage of the rocket flying through the sky.
The rocket went missing from South Korean military radar in the sea near Jeju Island at 9:36 a.m., said defense ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun, but the Japanese government said that it passed over the southern islands of Okinawa at about 9:41 a.m. There were no reports of any debris falling on land.
“We can definitely say that this was an attempted space launch,” said Melissa Hanham, a nuclear expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
North Korea previously fired a Kwangmyongsong-3 on an Unha-3 (“galaxy”) missile into orbit in December 2012, the month that North Korea marked the first anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father. Kim’s regime had said it would launch the same kind of satellite into orbit between Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, and the launch came a few hours after that window began. Sunday’s launch also coincides with another key date: North Korea’s celebration of Kim Jong Il’s birthday, Feb. 16.
North Korea has said the launches were of satellites intended for scientific purposes, but analysts and many governments see this as a disguised missile test. North Korea has successfully launched short- and medium-range missiles but has been working to develop a reliable long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States.
“This kind of rocket is designed as a space launch vehicle. Before we can consider it an intercontinental ballistic missile, there are a number of modifications that have to be made,” Hanham said. A space rocket goes into the atmosphere to launch a satellite into orbit, but an intercontinental ballistic missile needs to return to Earth from the atmosphere to reach its target — and deliver a warhead.
Jim Walsh, a research associate in the Security Studies Program at MIT, said that even though most of North Korea’s rocket and missile tests had been failures and Pyongyang was still using liquid-launched rockets, a technology now considered “archaic” everywhere else, there was still reason for concern.
“This doesn’t mean that they’re not making progress. The more tests they do, the more they learn, and they’re beavering away trying to improve their technology,” he said. “And it also means that at some level, they’re still able to evade sanctions.”
Nevertheless, the international community immediately resumed calls for North Korea to face strong punishment for its actions through more sanctions.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the launch “deeply deplorable” and exhorted North Korea “to halt its provocative actions and return to compliance with its international obligations.” Both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called emergency meetings of their national security councils, during which both said they could “not accept” such a provocation.
From Washington, Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, said that the launch using ballistic missile technology, following so closely after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, “represents yet another destabilizing and provocative action and is a flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
“North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs represent serious threats to our interests — including the security of some of our closest allies — and undermine peace and security in the broader region,” she said in a statement.
Rice also reiterated calls — mainly directed at China, North Korea’s closest ally and a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council — for the international community to “stand together and demonstrate to North Korea that its reckless actions must have serious consequences.”
But 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.”
A series of U.N. resolutions has prohibited North Korea from carrying out nuclear or ballistic missile tests, but Kim’s regime has shown little regard for these orders.
Yoongjung Seo in Seoul and Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.