North Korea rejects calls for restraint, goes ahead with rocket launch
North Korea launched a long-range rocket Sunday, ignoring pleas from ally China and other neighbors to cancel what is widely seen as a test of ballistic missile capabilities amid already-high tensions over its nuclear test a month earlier.
Japanese government officials said the rocket flew over a southern Okinawa island chain and landed in the ocean near the Philippines. Japan had deployed antimissile systems on land and sea in case the rocket started to come down over its territory.
“We are aware of North Korea's rocket launch and are closely monitoring the situation, U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement. “We continue to call on North Korea to refrain from irresponsible provocations.
“While we won't discuss employment of our military assets, no one should doubt that U.S.
Pacific Command forces, specifically U.S. Forces Korea, are prepared to protect the American homeland and defend our allies in South Korea, Japan, and the region.”
The U.S. Strategic Command issued a statement saying: “NORAD determined that at no time was the missile a threat to North America.”
The launch occurred at approximately 9:31 a.m. and was quickly picked up by U.S., Japanese and South Korean monitors that had been put on high alert. An emergency broadcast system in Okinawa used loudspeakers to alert residents that the missile had passed over Okinawa 10 minutes later.
The launch was strongly condemned by the Japanese government, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling it “intolerable” and a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Abe ordered his government to quickly analyze the launch and provide information to the nation.
"We absolutely cannot allow this," he told reporters. He also ordered officials to take all measures to prepare for any unanticipated situation.
In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye called an emergency meeting of the national security council.
Word of the launch came just in time for it to become a major topic in the U.S. Republican presidential candidate debate, sparking discussions on whether there should have been a preemptive strike against the North.
Japan said a falling object, presumably the rocket’s first stage, was spotted less than 100 miles west of the Korean peninsula. The second and third ones splashed down about 150 miles southwest of the peninsula, and the fourth went down about 200 kilometers 125 miles south of Japan, according to information posted on Twitter account of the Prime Minister's Office.
Amid a flurry of activity at its recently upgraded launch site on the west coast, North Korea had told two U.N. agencies last week that it planned to launch a rocket between Monday and Feb. 25. But it moved up the timetable Saturday.
It claimed it was putting a satellite in orbit, but it also has been trying to develop a rocket capable of reaching the continental United States and a nuclear weapon small enough to fit into a warhead.
The North has paired nuclear and rocket tests in the past. Its first successful three-stage rocket test took place in December 2012, followed by an underground nuclear test the following February, setting off what officials have called the most tense period on the Korean peninsula in decades.
Last month’s nuclear test quickly escalated tensions again, with the U.S. sending a B-52 bomber from Guam for a low-level flight over Osan, South Korea, in a show of force and a sign of support for Seoul.
The two Koreas have been staging a propaganda war across the Demilitarized Zone, using loudspeakers to blast their messages. The North has used balloons to drop more than a million propaganda leaflets over the South, criticizing Seoul and Washington.
The U.N. Security Council already has imposed sanctions against the North for its ballistic missile program, but they have not proven effective in getting the rogue nation to end its periodic provocations. Tougher sanctions have been under consideration since Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6.
Experts have questioned the North’s claims that it tested a hydrogen bomb, which would be a major escalation over its previous underground blast using enriched uranium or plutonium.
Stars and Stripes staffers Erik Slavin and Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.