Defiant North Korea Launches Rocket Weeks After Nuclear Test

Reactions As North Korea Fires Long-Range Rocket Weeks After Nuclear Test

People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast on North Korea's long-range rocket launch at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg
  • Isolated nation claims success in putting satellite into space
  • North Korea says there will be more rocket launches to come

North Korea launched a long-range rocket Sunday, just weeks after conducting a fourth nuclear test in the latest setback for international efforts to pressure the Kim Jong Un regime to end its weapons program.

The isolated nation claimed it was successful in putting the “Kwangmyongsong” (shining star) satellite into space, North Korean anchorwoman Ri Chun Hui said on state television, adding that there would be more launches to come. The rocket was fired at around 9:30 a.m. Seoul time and disappeared off the radar after flying almost 800 kilometers south, a South Korean official said.

"The fascinating vapor of Juche satellite trailing in the clear and blue sky in spring of February" is a gift from the nation’s scientists to Kim, the party and the people, the official Korean Central News Agency said Sunday.

Hours after the launch, South Korea and the U.S. announced they would start talks on the deployment of the U.S.’s Thaad ballistic missile defense system on South Korean soil. The government in Seoul also said it would expand the use of propaganda broadcasts along the heavily fortified border with the North, Yonhap reported, citing the nation’s joint chiefs of staff. South Korea will also cut the number of workers at the inter-Korean industrial complex in the North Korean city of Gaeseong..

The rocket launch and the nuclear test underscore the limited impact that U.S. pressure and existing United Nations sanctions have had on curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, which the North sees as its best defense against a possible U.S.-led invasion. The Obama administration’s push for tougher sanctions has also run into resistance from China, North Korea’s economic lifeline. Beijing rejects measures such as banning energy exports that could destabilize North Korea and trigger a flood of refugees across the countries’ shared border.

International Condemnation

The launch drew immediate condemnation from the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Secretary of State John Kerry called the firing “a flagrant violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions against the North testing ballistic missile technology, while South Korean President Park Geun Hye said the launch was an “unacceptable provocation” and called for additional sanctions to be leveled at Pyongyang. The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the launch at 11 a.m. New York time, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a text message.

"Pressure from the international society will probably tighten on North Korea,” Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said in a text message after the launch. "China is expected to consider stronger economic measures than it has previously, but it’s not very likely it will cooperate for the kind of highly strong sanctions demanded by South Korea and the U.S.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her nation "regrets" the use of ballistic missile technology to conduct the launch, while urging a "calm" response. "The Chinese side always maintains that dialogue and consultation is the only way to ensure lasting peace and stability in the region," she said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

‘Significant Measures’

The U.S. would work with security council members to develop “significant measures” to hold North Korea accountable, Kerry said in a statement. “Now is the time to do so in a firm and united way, with measures that make clear the determination of the international community to ‎address the pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities by” North Korea.

The U.S. has pushed China to do more to rein in its ally, with Kerry saying last month that China’s policy has been a failure. But the rocket launch also illustrates the limits of China’s leverage with Kim. The regime has ignored China’s repeated calls to stop developing nuclear arms and North Korea announced the rocket-launch plan in early February while China’s nuclear envoy was in Pyongyang for talks on North Korea’s weapons program.

North Korea said Sunday’s launch was to put a satellite into orbit and insists its rocket firings are for peaceful scientific purposes, while the U.S. views them as tests of ballistic missile technology that could eventually be used to carry nuclear weapons to U.S. shores.

North Korea is developing a missile called Taepodong-2 with a range of 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles), according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. That would leave the West Coast of the U.S. within the missile’s range. Questions remain as to whether North Korea has the technical capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and to ensure its missiles could endure the stress of space flight and hit intended targets precisely.

“The next technological step to developing a missile system will likely be to prove that its space launch vehicles are capable of carrying a re-entry vehicle capable of re-entering the atmosphere,” Alison Evans, an IHS Country Risk senior analyst, said before the launch. “This would give a strong indication that North Korea is capable of producing warheads for an intercontinental ballistic missile which could reach the United States.”

The test on Sunday follows a pattern of conducting long-range rocket launches around the time of nuclear tests. North Korea fired a long-range rocket before each of its previous three atomic tests, all of which resulted in a tightening of international sanctions.

North Korea put its first satellite into space in 2012 and has since upgraded its launch site on the nation’s northwest coast about 50 kilometers from the Chinese border to accommodate larger rockets. The nation’s claim the following year that it is capable of building a nuclear missile that can reach the U.S. has been met with skepticism. Even so, officials in Seoul have said the regime has made significant strides toward developing such weapons.