/ 5 April 2009

North Korea launches rocket over Japan

North Korea launched a long-range rocket over Japan on Sunday, drawing swift international condemnation and triggering an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

United States President Barack Obama said North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, had violated UN resolutions and increased its international isolation. He urged North Korea to refrain from further ”provocative actions”.

”With this provocative act, North Korea has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint, and further isolated itself from the community of nations,” Obama, in Prague on a European tour, said in a statement.

He was due to speak later on ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

Washington said it would take steps to let the reclusive North know it could not threaten regional security. South Korea called the launch of the rocket, seen by many powers as a disguised missile test, a ”reckless” act.

Japan said it stopped monitoring the Taepodong-2 rocket after it had passed 2 100km east of Tokyo, indicating the launch had been a success. In its only previous test flight, in July 2006, the rocket blew apart 40 seconds after launch.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a government official in Seoul as saying the rocket appeared to have carried a satellite, which Pyongyang had insisted was its plan.

Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Takeo Kawamura, said that even if the object launched was a satellite, it would violate UN resolutions on North Korean ballistic missile activity.

In New York, Japan’s UN ambassador requested an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the launch. A diplomat said a meeting would be held later on Sunday.

”It is extremely regrettable that North Korea went ahead with the launch … and we protest strongly,” Kawamura said.

Analysts said the launch may help North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shore up support after a suspected stroke in August raised questions of his grip on power and bolster his hand in using military threats to win concessions from global powers. The United States, South Korea and Japan had said the launch would actually be a test of the Taepodong-2, which is designed to carry a warhead as far as Alaska. It has an estimated range of 6 700km.

Impoverished North Korea, which for years has used military threats to wring concessions from regional powers, had said it was putting a satellite into orbit as part of a peaceful space programme and threatened war if the rocket was intercepted.

Talks in focus
Sunday was the second day in the April 4-8 time frame the secretive North had set for the launch.

The first rocket booster stage appeared to drop into the Sea of Japan, an estimated 280km west of the northern Japan coast, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

The second piece appeared to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

Stephen Bosworth, Washington’s special envoy for North Korea, last week suggested the launch was a foregone conclusion and that he hoped to bring the North back to six-party talks on ending its nuclear programmes once the ”dust” had settled over the launch.

While saying the talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States were central to efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear programme, he also said Washington was ready for direct contact with Pyongyang at any time.

The six-party talks stalled in December and Pyongyang has threatened to quit the dialogue if the United Nations imposes any punishment over its rocket launch.

The United States, Japan and South Korea will view the launch as a violation of a UN Security Council resolution passed in 2006 after Pyongyang carried out the nuclear test and other missile tests.

That resolution, number 1718, demands North Korea ”suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme”.

UN Security Council diplomats have told Reuters on condition of anonymity that no country was considering imposing new sanctions but the starting point could be discussing a resolution for the stricter enforcement of earlier sanctions.

Both Russia and China, the latter the nearest the reclusive North has to a major ally, have made clear they would block new sanctions by the Council, where they have veto power. – Reuters