CHRISTIAN NEWS SOURCE: By CHOE SANG-HUN and DAVID E. SANGER
NY Times Published: December 11, 2012
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Wednesday morning that appeared to reach as far as the Philippines, an apparent success for the country’s young and untested new leader, Kim Jong-un, and a step toward the nation’s goal of mastering the technology needed to build an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, said it had detected the launching and tracked the missile — a Galaxy-3 rocket, called the Unha-3 by the North — as its first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the Philippine Sea.
“Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” Norad said. “At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”
But the timing of the launching appeared to take American officials by surprise. Just an hour or two before blastoff from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri on North Korea’s western coast, near China, American officials at a holiday reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Washington said they thought the North Koreans had run into technical problems that could take them weeks to resolve.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the rocket succeeded in the ostensible goal of putting an earth-observation satellite named Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, and celebrations by members of the North Korean media were reported.
Although the launching was driven in part by domestic considerations, analysts said it carried far-reaching foreign relations implications, coming as leaders in Washington and Beijing — as well as those soon to be chosen in Tokyo and Seoul — try to form a new way of coping with North Korea after two decades of largely fruitless attempts to end its nuclear and missile ambitions.
For President Obama, the launching deepened the complexity of dealing with the new North Korean government, after four years in which promises of engagement, then threats of deeper sanctions, have done nothing to modify the country’s behavior. A statement from the White House by Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman, called the launch a “a highly provocative act that threatens regional security, directly violates United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, contravenes North Korea’s international obligations, and undermines the global nonproliferation regime.”
The launching also appeared to dash the hopes of some analysts that Mr. Kim might soften North Korea’s confrontational stance. It showed him instead as intent on bolstering his father’s main legacy of nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs to justify his own hereditary rule.
For Mr. Kim, barely a year in office, the launching was important in three respects. Its apparent success, after a test of the same rocket failed spectacularly seconds after takeoff in April, demonstrated what one American intelligence official called “a more professional operation” to diagnose and solve rocket-design problems similar to those the United States encountered in the 1960s. He built credibility with the powerful North Korean military, whose ranks he purged in recent months, replacing some top leaders with his own loyalists.
He also advertised that the country, despite its backwardness and isolation, could master a missile technology that it has previously marketed to Iran, Pakistan and others. Some American officials, who have privately warned of increased missile cooperation between Iran and North Korea over the past year, have argued that the North Korean test would benefit Iran as much as North Korea.
The North has a long way to go before it can threaten neighboring countries, and perhaps one day the West Coast of the United States, with a nuclear-armed missile. It has yet to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop its missile, experts say, and it has not tested a re-entry vehicle that can withstand the heat of the atmosphere. Nor is it clear that the country knows how to aim a missile with much accuracy.
“What’s important here is the symbolism, especially if the test seems reasonably successful,” said Victor D. Cha, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s not as if the U.S. can describe them anymore as a bunch of crazies who could never get anywhere with their technology. And it ends the argument that Kim Jong-un might be a young, progressive reformer who is determined to take the country in a new direction.”
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The missile capabilities of a country as opaque as North Korea are notoriously hard to assess. United States and South Korean officials have said that all of the North’s four multiple-stage rockets previously launched have exploded in midair or failed in their stated goal of thrusting a satellite into orbit. Nonetheless, during a visit to China early in 2011, Robert M. Gates, then Mr. Obama’s defense secretary, said that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The range of Wednesday’s test would fall far short of that goal, but suggests that the North has learned much about how to launch multistage rockets.
North Korea insisted it was exercising its right to peaceful activity in space. But this is the third time the North has provoked the Obama administration — and, to some degree, its patron the Chinese — in four years.
The country’s nuclear test in 2009 was intended to show that it had the capability to set off a nuclear explosion, though there is no evidence yet that its arsenal of a half-dozen to a dozen nuclear weapons could be deliverable outside North Korea. Then, in 2010, it showed a visiting Stanford scientist a uranium-enrichment plant that American intelligence services had missed.
The message was that the North now had a second pathway to building a bomb; all its weapons so far have been made from reprocessed plutonium from nuclear plants. At the time that the North revealed the plant, the Obama administration said it would consult with allies about an appropriate response, but the North suffered few consequences. It may be betting that the rocket launching draws a similar response.
Imposing sanctions on the North would be difficult. It has long been one of the most sanctioned countries on earth. While a further crackdown on offshore banking is possible, the North Koreans have no oil of their own to shut off. China could send a message by halting some deliveries to the North.
Wednesday’s unusual wintertime rocket launching came five days before the one-year anniversary of the death of Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, on Dec. 17, which his son is trying to mark with a fanfare aimed at showcasing his dynasty’s achievement in empowering the small and impoverished nation. Some experts believe another nuclear test blast cannot be far off.
The defiance Mr. Kim showed with his latest launch alarmed the region, which is going through sensitive changes of leadership. It came four days before the Dec. 16 lower-house election in Japan, where right-wing leaders have been gaining political leverage, thanks partly to North Korean threats. The provocation also presented an early test for candidates for the Dec. 19 presidential election in South Korea, all of whom have called for dialogue with the North.
“Regardless what the international community says about it, this successful launching boosts Kim Jong-un’s posture by turning him into a fox in a hen house in Northeast Asia,” said Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation. “It paints South Korea, Japan and the United States into a corner because it shows that the North’s technology is advancing.”
The launching is also expected to move Japan further toward the right as tensions over the country’s territorial disputes with neighboring countries remain high, Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Kim needed to redeem his April humiliation not only among his country’s enemies, who he feared would not take him as a worthy foe, but also among his people, who have grown disenchanted with his government’s inability to resolve the prolonged economic crisis, South Korean officials and analysts said.
Since he took power, Mr. Kim has tried to cement his authority with what analysts described as halfhearted economic reforms among some farms and factories, highlighting the perceived threats from the country’s external enemies, and, most recently, raising the specter of a reign of terror through talk of “squashing rebellious elements” at home. A series of top generals have recently been fired or demoted.
In a statement in October, North Korea’s National Defense Commission said that when “midranking policy makers from the United States, National Security Council and C.I.A. recently met with us in official and unofficial settings,” they tried to assure the North that Washington had no “hostile” intent. “But the reality clearly showed that the messages we received from the United States were lies,” it said, citing the United States’ agreement to let South Korea nearly triple the reach of its ballistic missiles, putting all of the North within its range.
The Washington-Seoul missile deal was to help South Korea better deter North Korea’s expanding missile capabilities. But North Korea called the deal a hostile move and said it now felt freer to test “long-range missiles for military purposes.”