LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Linda Wertheimer sitting in for Liane Hansen.
North Korea has launched a long-range rocket - the first such successful launch in its history. The North Koreans claim that the rocket carried a satellite and that it was put into orbit. But the U.S. northern command announced this morning that the launch did not send an object into orbit and that no debris fell on Japan.
North Korea's action provoked protest from Tokyo and Seoul to Washington, D.C. and Europe. There will be an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council later today to consider the challenge posed by this launch. NPR's Mike Shuster joins us from Seoul. Hello, Mike.
MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: First of all, tell us what happened. What do we know about the rocket and what it did?
SHUSTER: Well, we know it was launched at about 11:30 this morning, local time, from a launch side on the northeast coast of North Korea. The flight path was east, as North Korea had announced earlier, but the only nation that it flew over was Japan, which had been nervous about this launch and had deployed missile defense batteries. Those were put on alert but they weren't used.
The first word of the launch came from Japan and then quickly confirmed by South Korea. It took the North Koreans several hours before they released a statement and when they did go public, they claimed a satellite had been put in orbit and that it was playing revolutionary songs. But that is now being challenged by both the South Korean government and the U.S. northern command, which was closely tracking the launch and says the satellite was not put in orbit.
WERTHEIMER: Mike, the international reaction to the launch is treating it like a potential missile.
SHUSTER: That's true. Japan, Seoul and the United States all protested immediately. A spokesman for South Korea's president called it a reckless act that poses a serious threat to security on the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean military was put on alert. The Japanese government's spokesman called it extremely regrettable and said that despite putting a satellite in orbit, this amounted to a ballistic missile test.
President Obama in Prague used similar language, also calling it a missile, and he urged North Korea to refrain from further provocative acts. China's reaction was slow. It took a couple of hours before Beijing released a statement and was much cooler. It called for restraint all around and clearly did not express concern like Japan, South Korea and the U.S. did.
WERTHEIMER: Why has North Korea chosen this moment to carry out such an act?
SHUSTER: It's a good question, Linda, and there could be many reasons - to get the attention of the Obama administration and steal the president's thunder. Choosing to launch this rocket only hours before Mr. Obama was to give a major speech in Prague on nuclear weapons couldn't have been a coincidence.
It certainly, it was meant to underscore Kim Jong Il's leadership in North Korea, especially after his illness - he suffered a stroke last year. He could've been hoping, gambling on a successful launch and that this would've enhanced his prestige domestically and internationally.
WERTHEIMER: The North Koreans haven't told us much about this rocket. What do we need to know?
SHUSTER: There's lots more that engineers, and scientists and policymakers would like to know. We don't know just what the range of the rocket was, how heavy the payload was. All of this is important if there turns out to be a military version of this rocket that would be modified to carry a nuclear weapon.
It's not known where the final stage actually deployed or tried to deploy the satellite in space. And knowing that could help evaluate how advanced the rocket's delivery system is.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mike Shuster reporting from Seoul. Thanks very much, Mike.
SHUSTER: You're welcome, Linda.
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