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North Korea’s Launch of Long-Range Rocket Is ‘Destabilizing, Provocative,’ US Says

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A military officer stands by near a Japanese Self-Defense Force Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors launcher deployed at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tokyo on Feb. 6, 2016. North Korea launched a long-range rocket that day, violating U.N. resolutions and doubling down against an international community already determined to punish Pyongyang for a nuclear test last month. (Credit: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea has successfully launched a satellite into space, its state-run TV said, an action immediately condemned by the United States as “destabilizing and provocative.”

Carrier rocket Kwangmyongsong blasted off from the Sohae Space Center at 9 a.m Sunday local time, state news agency KCNA confirmed.

The Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite entered orbit nine minutes and 46 seconds after the liftoff, an operation “great leader Kim Jong Un personally ordered and directed,” the TV announcer said.

Though North Korea said the launch was for scientific, “peaceful purposes”, adding it plans to launch more satellites, it was viewed by other nations, such as Japan and South Korea, as a front for a ballistic missile test, especially coming on the heels of North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test last month.

A senior U.S. defense official said the rocket headed toward space and, based on its trajectory towards the Yellow Sea, “did not pose a threat to the U.S. or our allies.”

The United States, Japan and South Korea have called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Sunday, a senior U.S. official told CNN.

‘A major provocation’

The U.S., South Korean, Japanese and Chinese governments immediately criticized the rocket 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.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch a “challenge to world peace.” The South Korea Unification Ministry said it would be reducing the personnel at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint economic development between the two Koreas, from 650 to 500 “in consideration of safety of our people.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “China expresses regret that DPRK, in spite of the pervasive opposition of the international community, insisted on using ballistic missile technology to carry out a launch.”

Meanwhile, the Japanese government said it had lodged a “serious protest” at the action. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said “this is totally unacceptable.” Echoing that it was a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, he promised to “resolutely take measures, acting in cooperation with the international community.”

Japan’s analysis of the launch indicated parts the rocket fell into four locations offshore after takeoff, the Japanese Prime Minister’s office said Sunday via Twitter.

One location is 150 kilometers west of the Korean peninsula in the Yellow Sea, two other locations are southwest of the Korean peninsula in the East China Sea and a fourth location is about 2,000 kilometers south of Japan in the Pacific Ocean, according to the Prime Minister’s office.

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 to launch today’s satellite 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 upon the Taepodong long-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of around 5,600 miles (9,000 km).

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 in 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 $2.09 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 for.

“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 after the launch.

Kerry, when 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.”