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 U.N. Security Council.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement that North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, had violated U.N. resolutions and increased its own isolation, and he urged Pyongyang 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,” said Obama, who was in Prague on a European tour.

He was due to deliver a speech later calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons across the globe.

Washington said it would take steps to let the reclusive North know it could not threaten regional security.

South Korea branded the launch of the rocket, seen by many powers as a disguised missile test, a “reckless” act, Japan said it was “extremely regrettable,” and the European Union “strongly condemned” Pyongyang’s step.

China, the nearest the reclusive North has to a major ally, called on all sides to maintain calm and restraint.

“NEGOTIATING HAND STRENGTHENED”

Japan said it stopped monitoring the Taepodong-2 rocket after it had passed 2,100 km (1,305 miles) 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 all along insisted was its plan for a launch it flagged would come in an April 4-8 window.

Analysts said the launch may bolster North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s authority after a suspected stroke last August raised doubts about his grip on power, and it could strengthen his hand in using military threats to win concessions from global powers.

“North Korea is likely to judge that its negotiating position has been strengthened now that is has both the nuclear and missile cards,” said Shunji Hiraiwa of Shizuoka Prefectural University in Japan.

The United States, South Korea and Japan had said the launch would in reality be a test of the Taepodong-2, a ballistic missile designed to carry a warhead as far as Alaska. It is designed to fly an estimated range of 6,700 km (4,200 miles).

The first booster stage of the rocket launched on Sunday appeared to drop into the Sea of Japan, some 280 km (170 miles) west of the northern Japan coast, the prime minister’s office said. The second appeared to fall into the Pacific Ocean.

There was no official word on just how far the rocket flew, and North Korea’s official media was silent on the launch.

In New York, Japan’s U.N. ambassador requested an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the launch. A diplomat said a meeting would be held at 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) on Sunday.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Takeo Kawamura, said that even if the payload was a satellite, it would still violate U.N. resolutions on North Korean ballistic missile activity.

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

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

CHINA COULD USE VETO AT U.N.

U.N. 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 have made clear they would block new sanctions by the Security Council, where they have veto power.

“If the United States and Japan insist on a new resolution and new sanctions at the United Nations, China will most likely use its veto,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international security at Renmin University in Beijing.

“China’s principle is only to support United Nations sanctions in the most extreme cases. Although the launch was serious, it was much less serious than the nuclear test.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the launch was not conducive to peace and stability and called on North Korea to return to six-country talks on ending its nuclear programs.

Stephen Bosworth, Washington’s special envoy for North Korea, said ahead of the launch last week that he hoped to bring the North back to the talks once the “dust” had settled.

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 program, 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.

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