SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea’s rocket may have fallen into the sea, but military experts cautioned Monday against calling it a complete failure, noting that it traveled twice as far as any missile the country has launched.
Although the distance was still far short of showing North Korea could reach U.S. territory, it rattled the North’s neighbors and countries around the globe, with the United States and its allies pushing for quick punishment at an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting held hours after lift off.
The launch, which demonstrated progress, is a particularly worrying development for a belligerent country that says it has nuclear weapons and once threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
President Barack Obama, faced with his first global security crisis, called for an international response and condemned North Korea for threatening the peace and stability of nations “near and far” with what Pyongyang claimed was a satellite launch and its neighbors suspect was a test of a long-range missile technology.
“North Korea broke the rules, once again, by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles,” Obama said in Prague. “This provocation underscores the need for action, not just … in the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons.”
Council members met for three hours Sunday but failed to release even a customary preliminary statement of condemnation – evidence of the challenges in agreeing on some kind of punishment. China, the North’s closest ally, and Russia hold veto power and could water down any response.
Diplomats privy to the closed-door talks say China, Russia, Libya and Vietnam were concerned about further alienating and destabilizing North Korea.
“Our position is that all countries concerned should show restraint and refrain from taking actions that might lead to increased tensions,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui said.
Analysts say sanctions imposed after the North’s underground nuclear test in 2006 have had little effect because some countries showed no will to impose them. Those sanctions bar the North from ballistic missile activity. Pyongyang claims it was exercising its right to peaceful space development.
Still, Japan said it plans to extend its economic sanctions on the North for another year. The measures, among other things, prohibit Japanese companies from buying North Korean exports.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso urged the Security Council to take a firm stance against North Korea and said he would continue lobbying China and Russia for support.
“The international society should send a strong message to North Korea in a conce rted action,” he told reporters Monday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il personally observed the launch, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday, expressing “great satisfaction” with the achievement.
Pyongyang’s state media claimed again Monday that the rocket put an experimental communications satellite into orbit, saying North Korea’s people were carried away by “great passion” over the news.
Byun Young Rip, chief of the country’s science academy, said the launch would provide the North with a “scientific, technological guarantee” to launch more satellites, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
But United States and South Korean officials claim the entire rocket, including whatever payload it carried, ended up in the ocean after Sunday’s launch. South Korean officials said the rocket’s second stage landed in waters about 1,900 miles (3,100 kilometers) from the northeastern North Korean launch site.
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that while the rocket’s first stage successfully broke away, it appears the second and third stages failed to separate or had difficulty doing so.
“They’re still a long ways off from being able to successfully target and strike the United States,” he said.
But Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at Seoul’s state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the launch raises the stakes at stalled disarmament talks because Pyongyang now has more to bargain away.
“Militarily and politically, it’s not a failure” because “North Korea demonstrated a greatly enhanced range,” Kim said. “North Korea is playing a game of trying to manipulate the U.S. by getting it within range, which is the so-called pressure card.”