SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea's rocket may have fallen into the sea, but military experts cautioned Monday against calling it a complete failure, pointing out that it traveled twice as far as any missile the country has launched.
Although the distance was still far short of showing North Korea could reach U.S. territory, it rattled the North's neighbors and countries around the globe, with the U.S. and its allies pushing for quick punishment at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting held hours after the launch.
The launch, which demonstrated progress, is a particularly worrying development for a belligerent country that says it has nuclear weapons and once threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire."
President Barack Obama, faced with his first global security crisis, called for an international response and condemned North Korea for threatening the peace and stability of nations "near and far" with what Pyongyang claimed was a satellite launch and its neighbors suspect was a test of a long-range missile technology.
Click to view photos | Satellite image of the launch area
"North Korea broke the rules, once again, by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles," Obama said in Prague. "This provocation underscores the need for action, not just ... in the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons."
Council members met for three hours Sunday but failed to even to release even a customary preliminary statement of condemnation — evidence of the challenges in agreeing on some kind of punishment. China, the North's closest ally, and Russia hold veto power and could water down any response.
Diplomats privy to the closed-door talks say China, Russia, Libya and Vietnam were concerned about further alienating and destabilizing North Korea.
"Our position is that all countries concerned should show restraint and refrain from taking actions that might lead to increased tensions," Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui said after the talks.
Analysts say sanctions imposed after the North's underground nuclear test in 2006 appear to have had little effect because some countries showed no will to impose them. Those sanctions bar the North from ballistic missile activity. Pyongyang claims it was exercising its right to peaceful space development.
U.S. and South Korean officials claim the entire rocket, including whatever payload it carried, ended up in the ocean after Sunday's launch. Pyongyang says it launched a communications satellite into orbit that is now transmitting data and patriotic songs.
Despite analyst caution that economic punishments appear not to work, Japan plans to extend its economic sanctions on the North for another year. The measures prohibit Japanese companies from buying North Korean exports and are renewed every six months.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il personally observed the launch, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday, saying he expressed "great satisfaction" that North Korea's scientists "successfully launched the satellite with their own wisdom and technology."
However, U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials have confirmed the rocket's second stage landed in waters about 1,984 miles (3,200 kilometers) from the northeastern North Korean launch site, the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Monday.
That's double the distance a rocket managed in 1998 and far better than a 2006 launch of a long-range missile that fizzled just 42 seconds after liftoff, but still well short of U.S. territory. Anchorage, Alaska, is roughly 3,500 miles (6,000 kilometers) from the launch site, Seattle about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers).
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that while the rocket's first stage successfully broke away, it appears the second and third stages failed to separate or had difficulty doing so.
"So it has to call into question the dependability and reliability of the system," he said. "They're still a long ways off" from being able to successfully target and strike the United States, he said.
But Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at Seoul's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the launch raises the stakes at stalled talks aimed at convincing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and concessions because Pyongyang now has more to bargain away.
"Militarily and politically, it's not a failure" because "North Korea demonstrated a greatly enhanced range," Kim said. "North Korea is playing a game of trying to manipulate the U.S. by getting it within range, which is the so-called pressure card."
Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University, said Pyongyang could carry out other provocative acts, such as a second nuclear test, if its rocket launch doesn't produce what it wants — such as direct talks with the U.S.
Kim, however, said the North was unlikely to trigger naval skirmishes or conduct short-range missile tests — as it did in conjunction with a previous long-range missile test — because they are "routine" provocations targeting South Korea, not the U.S.
Pinkston said a medium-range missile launch or even another nuclear bomb test was unlikely.
"Why do it now?" he asked, adding that everything Pyongyang does is aimed at influencing the United States. "They will wait for the response to this satellite launch."
North Korea, one of the world's poorest countries, is in desperate need of outside aid, particularly since the help that flowed in unconditionally from neighboring South Korea for a decade has dried up since Lee took office in Seoul in 2008.
Pyongyang routinely uses its nuclear weapons program as its trump card, promising to abandon its atomic ambitions in exchange for aid and then exercising the nuclear threat when it doesn't get its way. The North also has reportedly been selling missile parts and technology to whoever has the cash to pay for it.
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