SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched a satellite into space Sunday, its state media reported, triggering a wave of international condemnation and prompting strong reaction from 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.
At an emergency meeting Sunday, members of the U.N. Security Council “strongly condemned” the launch and reaffirmed that “a clear threat to international peace and security continues to exist, especially in the context of the nuclear test.”
Security Council members have previously threatened “further significant measures” if there was another North Korean launch and now will “adopt expeditiously a new Security Council resolution with such measures in response to these dangerous and serious violations,” according to a statement read by Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations after the meeting.
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. ET Saturday), entering orbit nine 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.
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.
China summoned North Korea’s ambassador to protest Pyongyang’s launch of a satellite using ballistic missile technology, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
It also criticized the plans for South Korean-U.S. missile defense system talks and summoned the South Korean ambassador over the matter.
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, China 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.”
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’s not a lot more that the international community can do to sanction Pyongyang.
“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.”
CNN’s Richard Roth, Elise Labott, James Griffiths, Barbara Starr, Paula Hancocks, Jason Hanna, Jamie Crawford, Yoko Wakatsuki, Junko Ogura, Don Melvin, Brian Walker, Steven Jiang and Kevin Wang contributed to this report
North Korea tested hydrogen bomb
According to a 2015 report on Pyongyang’s space program by 38 North, testing rockets through satellite launches would provide invaluable data for potential future ICBMs.
“Even failed satellite launches would be a learning experience,” wrote aerospace engineer John Schilling.
Schilling said that a key sign to look out for in future North Korean satellite launches would be attempts to test an advanced re-entry vehicle, vital for an effective ICBM.
A month ago North Korea said it carried out a hydrogen bomb test — a claim that was viewed skeptically by most of the international community.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had urged North Korea to “refrain” from the launch and said his cabinet was working closely with the United States and South Korea to gather information and prepare a potential response.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang had expressed “deep concern” over the launch.
“We hope (North Korea) will exercise restraint and caution in its actions. It should not act in a way that may escalate tensions on the peninsula,” Lu said Wednesday.
North Korea had not given a specific time for the rocket launch, saying it could be launched between Sunday and February 14.