Democratic People’s Republic of Korea carried out a rocket launch Sunday that DPRK claims its aim is to send an experimental communications satellite into orbit in a peaceful bid to develop its space program while the U.S., Japan and other nations suspect was a cover for a test of its long-range missile technology.
Liftoff took place at 11:30 a.m. (0230GMT) Sunday from the coastal Musudan-ri launch pad in northeastern DPRK, the Republic of Korea (RoK) and U.S. governments said. The multistage rocket hurtled toward the Pacific, reaching Japanese airspace within seven minutes, but no debris appeared to hit its territory, officials in Tokyo said.
The rocket that DPRK fired Sunday is believed to have carried a satellite, Yonhap news agency quoted a Seoul government official as saying.
The U.N. Security Council approved an emergency session for Sunday afternoon in New York, following a request from Japan that came minutes after the launch.
The South Koreans called it "reckless," the Americans "provocative," and Japan said it strongly protested the launch.
The launch was a bold act of defiance against President Barack Obama, Japanese leader Taro Aso, Hu Jintao of China and others who pressed Pyongyang in the days leading up to liftoff to call off a launch they said would threaten peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
RoK's presidential Blue House said the launch poses a "serious threat" to stability on the Korean peninsula and that it would respond to the provocation "sternly and resolutely." President Lee Myung-bak ordered the military to remain on alert, the Blue House said.
"We cannot contain our disappointment and regret over DPRK's reckless act," presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan told reporters Sunday. He said the launch of the long-range rocket "poses a serious threat to security on the Korean peninsula and the world."
The U.S., RoK, Japan and others suspect the launch is a guise for testing the regime's long-range missile technology — one step toward eventually mounting a nuclear weapon on a missile capable of reaching Alaska and beyond.
They contend the launch violates a 2006 resolution barring the DPRK from ballistic missile activity.
US President Barack Obama said Sunday that DPRK's rocket launch was "provocative" and called for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis. He also affirmed DPRK launch was Taepodong-2 missile test.
Obama issued a written statement about the launch hours before he was due to give a major speech on nuclear proliferation in the Czech capital Prague.
Japan's U.N. mission has asked for a meeting of the 15-nation council Sunday, spokesman Yutaka Arima said. Mexico's mission to the United Nations set the meeting for 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT), spokesman Marco Morales said. Mexico holds the 15-nation council's presidency this month.
U.N. diplomats already have begun discussing ways to affirm existing sanctions on DPRK against its nuclear program and long-range missile tests.
In Japan, chief Cabinet spokesman Takeo Kawamura said it was not immediately clear if the rocket was mounted with a satellite as DPRK has claimed.
DPRK calls its "space launch vehicle" Unha-2, but the rocket is better known to the outside world as the Taepodong-2, a long-range missile that can be mounted with a satellite or nuclear armament.
"Even if a satellite was launched, we see this as a ballistic missile test and we think this matter should be taken to the United Nations Security Council," Kawamura said. "We are highly concerned by this matter."
"We strongly protest this launch," he said.
The first stage of the rocket dropped about 175 miles (280 kilometers) off the western coast of Akita into the waters between Japan and the Korean peninsula. The second stage was to land in the Pacific at a spot about 790 miles (1,270 kilometers) off Japan's northeastern coast, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said in Tokyo.
Japan said it would convene a security panel meeting later in the day to discuss what further measures can be taken. Kawamura said Japan would work closely with Washington and with the U.N.
"Our primary concern is to confirm safety and gather information," Aso told a news conference at his Tokyo office Sunday.
DPRK shocked Japan in 1998 when it launched a missile over Japan's main island. Japan has since spent billions of dollars on developing a missile shield with the United States and has launched a series of spy satellites primarily to watch developments in DPRK.
Japan had threatened to shoot down any debris from the rocket if the launch went wrong, and positioned batteries of interceptor missiles on its coast and radar-equipped ships off its northern seas to monitor the launch.
No attempt at interception was made since no debris fell onto its territory, a ministry spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.