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N. Korea rocket raises nuclear stakes: analysts
by Staff Writers
Seoul (AFP) Dec 12, 2012


US deplores 'highly provocative' N. Korea launch
Washington (AFP) Dec 12, 2012 - The United States condemned North Korea's "highly provocative" launch of a long-range rocket, warning it would destabilize the region and further isolate Pyongyang from the world community.

The launch marks "yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior," White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

The move triggered plans for an emergency session Wednesday of the UN Security Council, which has imposed sanctions against North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) officials said North Korea appeared to have successfully launched "an object" into orbit, marking a technological success for the hermit nation.

Washington and its allies have long insisted such launches are disguised tests for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

"Given this current threat to regional security, the United States will strengthen and increase our close coordination with allies and partners," Vietor said.

"North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in such provocative acts.

"Devoting scarce resources to the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons has not brought it security and acceptance by the international community -- and never will," he added.

NORAD said early indications suggested that the first stage of the rocket fell into the Yellow Sea, and estimated that the second stage fell into the Philippine Sea.

"Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," it added. "At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America."

A previous launch of the same Unha-3 rocket in April had ended in failure, with the carrier exploding shortly after take-off.

In 2006, the Security Council imposed an embargo against North Korea on arms and material for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

It also banned imports of luxury goods and named individuals and companies as subject to a global assets freeze and travel ban.

In 2009, the Security Council imposed a ban on North Korea's weapons exports and ordered all countries to search suspect shipments.

According to Japanese reports, Japan, the United States and South Korea have agreed to demand the Security Council strengthen sanctions on North Korea to match those on Iran.

That would include increasing the list of financial institutions, entities and individuals subject to asset freezes.

Much will depend on the stance taken by UN veto holder China, North Korea's sole major ally and its biggest trade partner and aid provider.

North Korea's rocket launch is evidence of a new ballistic missile capability that sharply raises the stakes over Pyongyang's nuclear programme and poses a direct threat to the United States, analysts say.

Although the isolated state faces a stiff technical challenge in shaping, fitting and accurately delivering a long-distance nuclear payload, Wednesday's launch marks a major upgrade of its potential strategic military ability.

"This launch certainly bolsters their credibility when they say that they have missiles that can strike the United States," said James Schoff, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"It's harder to wave that off after a successful test like this," said Schoff, a former Pentagon official.

A North Korean claim in October that it already possessed rockets capable of striking the US mainland had been widely dismissed as rhetorical bluster at the time.

Masao Okonogi, a professor of Korean politics at Keio University, agreed that the launch would thrust North Korea close to the top of Washington's national security agenda.

"Putting a satellite into orbit means that you have technology to get a warhead to a targeted area. Now, North Korea is becoming not only a threat to the neighbouring countries but also a real threat to the United States," Okonogi said.

"The question is whether the satellite was precisely put into the planned orbit or veered away."

US and South Korean officials said it would take time to fully analyse Wednesday's launch, which Pyongyang described as a purely scientific space mission, but its critics condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test.

Even if the North has achieved its stated objective of placing a satellite in orbit, several analysts cautioned against over-stating its new military capabilities.

Miniaturising a nuclear weapon into a warhead that would fit on a ballistic missile is an enormous technical challenge, and there are still significant questions over accurate delivery, they said.

"It's one thing to have a missile with sufficient range to reach Hawaii. It's another to have sufficient accuracy to hit what you're aiming at," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It means they have a pretty good chance of hitting the Pacific Ocean but not much chance hitting an island, much less a specific target," said Cossa, a former US Air Force colonel.

"Nonetheless, they are getting better and we have to take them seriously."

Pyongyang's nuclear programme remains shrouded in secrecy, but the country's existing plutonium stockpile is estimated to be enough for six to eight atomic bombs.

Ham Hyeong-Pil, from the South Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said Pyongyang would move quickly to refine the missile's accuracy and perfect warhead miniaturisation techniques.

"I personally believe that it won't take long for the North to master these two technologies, once it overcomes some technical problems and stages two or three more launches down the road," Ham said.

"It's a worrying situation. I think that the US has no choice but to recognise it as a real, tangible threat," he added.

The timing of Wednesday's launch was widely seen as politically motivated, with the North's leader Kim Jung-Un determined that it should take place close to the first anniversary of the death of his father and former leader, Kim Jong-Il on December 17.

"Kim Jong-Un gains a lot from this in terms of his securing his position and prestige," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

A previous launch attempt in April, for which Pyongyang had taken the unprecedented step of inviting the foreign media, ended in an embarrassing failure when the carrier exploded shortly after take-off.

The UN Security Council was due to meet later Wednesday to discuss its response to the launch, with the US and its allies demanding a significant expansion of sanctions already imposed after the North's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Much will depend on the stance of veto-wielding China -- Pyongyang's only major ally and main aid donor -- which has resisted the call for tougher sanctions in the past.

China expressed concern at Wednesday's launch and called on all sides to avoid "stoking the flames".

Cossa said Pyongyang's action would present a key challenge to Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, who will formally become president in March.

"Most Chinese say Xi is already calling the shots so this becomes his first test on how he deals with an international crisis," Cossa said.

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