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[SEOUL] North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday, drawing immediate condemnation from Japan and the US a month after the isolated nation conducted a fourth nuclear test.
A South Korean official said the rocket was launched around 9:30 am Seoul time and disappeared off the radar south of Jeju island, while adding it was too soon to determine whether it had been a success. Yonhap News, without citing anyone, said the launch was possibly a failure. The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the launch at 11 am New York time.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticised the launch, telling reporters in Tokyo it was unacceptable and in violation of international law. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice issued a statement saying the launch "represents yet another destabilising and provocative action and is a flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions."
The Jan 6 test of what North Korea claimed was a hydrogen bomb prompted the US, Japan and South Korea to seek tougher international sanctions against Kim Jong Un's regime. Those efforts have run into resistance from China, which rejects measures that could destabilize North Korea and trigger a flood of refugees across the countries' shared border.
The rocket launch showed the limits of China's leverage with Mr Kim as the plan was announced in early February while China's nuclear envoy was in Pyongyang. The Kim regime has ignored China's repeated calls to stop developing nuclear arms. North Korea insists its rocket launches are for peaceful scientific purposes, while the US has said they are tests of ballistic missile technology that could eventually carry nuclear weapons and are banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions.
US President Barack Obama has discussed the possible rocket launch with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and both agreed it would breach multiple UN Security Council resolutions against missile testing "and represent another provocative and destabilising action," according to a White House statement on Feb 5.
The two leaders emphasised the "importance of a strong and united international response to North Korea's provocations." The test 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.
"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."
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 US has been met with skepticism. Even so, officials in Seoul have said the regime has made significant strides toward developing such weapons.
North Korea is developing a missile called Taepodong-2 with a range of 10,000 kilometers, according to South Korea's Defense Ministry. That would leave the West Coast of the US within the missile's range. Questions remain as to whether North Korea has the technical capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead and to ensure its missiles could endure the stress of space flight and hit intended targets precisely.
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