SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — North Korea launched a satellite into space Sunday, its state media reported, triggering a wave of international condemnation and prompting the United States, South Korea and Japan to call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Though North Korea said the launch was for scientific and “peaceful purposes,” it is being widely viewed by other nations as a front to test a ballistic missile, especially coming on the heels of North Korea’s purported hydrogen bomb test last month.
Pyongyang carried out both acts in defiance of international sanctions.
An emergency Security Council meeting will be convened Sunday at 11 a.m. in New York to discuss a potential international response.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the launch is “deeply deplorable” and in violation of Security Council resolutions “despite the united plea of the international community against such an act.”
Satellite in orbit
The Kwangmyongsong carrier rocket blasted off from the Sohae launch facility at 9 a.m Sunday (7:30 p.m. Saturday ET), entering orbit 9 minutes and 46 seconds after liftoff, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported.
A state TV newsreader said that the launch had been personally ordered and directed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — who was pictured smiling in official photographs as he oversaw the launch — and that more satellite launches were planned.
A senior U.S. defense official said the rocket headed toward space and, based on its trajectory over the Yellow Sea, “did not pose a threat to the U.S. or our allies.”
At least two new objects have been detected in Earth’s orbit and are being tracked, a spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command told CNN on Sunday. The objects appeared to be the satellite and the final stage of the rocket booster, said arms control expert David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program.
South Korea retrieved a piece of debris believed to be a part of the missile Sunday morning, a Defense Ministry official told CNN. The object was recovered from the ocean by a South Korean navy vessel and is being analyzed, the official said.
Japan’s analysis of the launch indicated parts of the rocket fell in four locations offshore after takeoff, the Japanese Prime Minister’s office said via Twitter.
A South Korean lawmaker said Sunday that intelligence on the launch suggested that it had likely been timed to coincide with the NFL Super Bowl and Chinese New Year, in order to maximize international media impact.
“The date of the launch appears to be in consideration of the weather condition and ahead of the Lunar New Year and the U.S. Super Bowl,” said Jo Ho-young, chairman of the South Korean National Assembly Intelligence Committee.
‘A major provocation’
The United States, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, Britain and France, as well as the European Union and NATO, were swift to condemn the launch.
“This is the second time in just over a month that the DPRK has chosen to conduct a major provocation, threatening not only the security of the Korean peninsula, but that of the region and the United States as well,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement, using the initials of the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch a “challenge to world peace,” while her government announced it would begin talks with the U.S. to deploy a defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, which can intercept missiles in flight.
It also planned to reduce the personnel at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint economic development zone between the two Koreas, from 650 to 500 “in consideration of safety of our people,” the South Korea Unification Ministry said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China expressed “regret that DPRK, in spite of the pervasive opposition of the international community, insisted on using ballistic missile technology to carry out a launch.”
The Japanese government announced it had lodged a “serious protest” at the action via its embassy.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, promising to “resolutely take measures, acting in cooperation with the international community.”
Satellite — or nuclear missile?
At present, North Korea is believed to have one satellite in orbit, the Kwangmyongsong 3-2, though doubts have been raised about whether it is functioning.
U.S. officials have said the same type of rocket used for Sunday’s launch could deliver a nuclear warhead.
China, the Soviet Union and the United States have all used intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, to launch satellites in the past. During the Cold War era of the 1950s, ICBMs were used by both the United States and the Soviet Union as warhead delivery systems, as well as in the early development of both countries’ space programs.
The Unha rocket used to launch North Korea’s last satellite is believed to be based on the Taepodong long-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of around 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers).
That would put Australia, much of Western Europe, and the U.S. West Coast in range of a North Korean warhead.
According to multiple experts, North Korea has at least a dozen and perhaps as many as 100 nuclear weapons, though at present it lacks sophisticated delivery mechanisms.
Increased pressure on China
The launch will heighten international pressure on China, North Korea’s biggest foreign investor, to do more.
Wary of creating a refugee crisis should Kim’s regime collapse, however, it has been unwilling to implement sanctions that would really put a choke on North Korea’s economy.
“Sanctions are definitely not the aim,” an editorial published Sunday by Chinese state news agency Xinhua said. It did, however, note that Foreign Minister Wang Yi would “continue to exercise strategic composure and play a constructive role in helping seek a solution to the peninsular conundrum.”
Chinese companies helped supply the equipment for the world-class Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea, which opened in 2013, according to The New York Times. Chinese customs data showed that North Korea imported more than $2 billion in luxury goods between 2012 and 2014, including Mercedes Benz cars and luxury yachts.
China’s position stands at odds with stronger measures the United States and South Korea are pushing.
“The only route to have North Korea give up its nuclear program is by having North Korea voluntarily abandon its nuclear (development) by coming up with effective and strong U.N. Security Council sanction,” South Korean presidential security adviser Cho Tae-yong said in response to the launch.
Kerry, at a meeting with Chinese officials last month, said, “With all due respect, more significant and impactful sanctions were put in place against Iran, which did not have a nuclear weapon, than against North Korea, which does.”
Alison Evans, senior analyst for Asia-Pacific at IHS Country Risk, said that Pyongyang had likely calculated that by carrying out the rocket launch so soon after the January 6 nuclear test — before the international community had responded to the latter with new sanctions — it might face less severe repercussions than if the launch and test were responded to individually.
However, she said, there was not a lot more that the international community could do to sanction Pyongyang that it wasn’t already doing.
“There are some things that haven’t yet been touched upon, like North Korean labor exported abroad, which brings in a lot of foreign currency for the North Korean government,” she said.
“But if anything, it would be China’s implementation of existing sanctions that would tighten the screws on North Korea.”