North Korean Launch Grabs World's Attention

The U.N. Security Council is seeking a unified response to North Korea's defiant launch of a rocket over the weekend. The North claims it launched a satellite, but the U.S. and South Korea say the rocket, and whatever was on it, crashed into the Pacific.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Obama has been talking about nuclear issues on his trip. That issue came up again yesterday, when North Korea launched a rocket. And here's the question being asked today: Did North Korea really attempt to put a satellite into orbit, or was that a cover for a long-range missile test? North Korea claims its launch did put a satellite in orbit. The U.S. military says it didn't. Still, the launch got the attention of North Korea's neighbors. NPR'S Mike Shuster has more from Seoul.

MIKE SHUSTER: For weeks, North Korea insisted it wasn't planning a missile test. The rocket it was preparing was intended to put a satellite into orbit, something every nation has the right to do, the North Koreans said. And that's the way it looked when the rocked lifted off the launch pad at Musudan-ri at 11:30 in the morning local time on Sunday. The rocket dropped its first stage in the Sea of Japan and dropped its second stage more than a thousand miles into the Pacific. Then, North Korea claimed the third stage put the satellite into orbit, and by the end of the day it was circling the Earth, playing revolutionary songs. In the region, there was immediate condemnation. South Korea put its military on alert and its foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, called the launch a threat to security and stability.

Mr. YU MYUNG-HWAN (Foreign Minister, South Korea): (Through translator) Even through our government, the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and other concerned nations warned North Korea to withdraw their launching plan right up to the last minute, we express our serious concern over North Korea ignoring this and executing the launch. Our government is going to strengthen all sorts of preparations to deal with any kind of provocation from North Korea from now on.

SHUSTER: Japan was the only other nation whose airspace the rocket penetrated. Japan was nervous about the possibility that the rocket might fall onto its territory, and it readied its missile-defense system for such an eventuality. That did not happen but Japan's prime minister, Taro Aso, dismissed the claim that the North Koreans were attempting to launch a satellite.

Prime Minister TARO ASO (Japan): (Through translator) By conducting the launch despite our repeated warnings, we see this as an extremely provocative action towards us, and Japan cannot tolerate it. Therefore, we will continue to deal with the matter in cooperation with the international community, as this is a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution.

SHUSTER: The Japanese prime minister was referring to Resolution 1718, adopted after North Korea tested a nuclear device in 2006. That resolution prohibits North Korea from engaging in ballistic missile development and testing. It was that resolution that President Obama had in mind when he spoke yesterday in Prague about North Korea and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

President BARACK OBAMA: North Korea broke the rules, once again, by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles. This provocation underscores the need for action, not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons. Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.

SHUSTER: And then the U.S. military weighed in. The United States has an extensive radar and early warning system in the Pacific, including spy satellites and aircraft, and sophisticated radars on land and at sea. The U.S. Northern Command released a statement saying the North Korean rocket had failed to put anything in orbit. This has led to the big question: Did North Korea ever plan to launch a satellite, and was there even a satellite in the rocket's nosecone?

Brian Myers, a North Korea watcher at Dongseo University in Pusan here in South Korea, has his doubts. But Myers believes the real aim of this rocket launch was to convince the people of North Korea they could be proud of their nation's accomplishments in such a hostile world.

Professor BRIAN MYERS (North Korea Watcher, Dongseo University): The important thing for the North Korean regime in its attempts to rally the people around it is going to be the fact that the whole world told North Korea not to do it. The United States and Japan told North Korea not to do it, and it went ahead with the launch anyway. So I think this is a political success for the North Korean regime, even if technologically speaking, it wasn't perhaps such a big one.

SHUSTER: Still, it does demonstrate North Korea is making progress in the development of its missile capabilities. Yesterday's rocket traveled more than 2,000 miles, farther than any North Korean missile has flown before.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul.

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