SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea on Sunday defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket that the United Nations and others call a cover for a banned test of technology for a missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.
The rocket, fired from North Korea’s west coast and tracked by the governments in South Korea and Japan, came about two hours after an eight-day launch window opened Sunday morning. It follows North Korea’s widely disputed claim last month to have tested a hydrogen bomb. Washington, Seoul and their allies will consider it a further provocation and will push for more tough sanctions in the United Nations.
A South Korean defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of office rules, said the launch from the North’s west coast launching pad was made between 9:30 a.m. and 9:35 a.m. local time, but gave no other details. Japan’s NHK broadcaster reported that debris from the launch was believed to have fallen about 250 kilometers (155 miles) off the southwest coast of the Korean Peninsula into the East China Sea about 14 minutes after the launch.
NHK also showed footage of an object visible in the skies from the southern island of Okinawa that was believed to be the rocket.
Japanese chief Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters that no debris fell on Japanese territory.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye convened an emergency national security council meeting after the launch.
North Korean rocket and nuclear tests are seen as crucial steps toward the North’s ultimate goal of a nuclear armed long-range missile arsenal. North Korea under leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to bolster its nuclear arsenal unless Washington scraps what Pyongyang calls a hostile policy meant to collapse Kim’s government.
The global criticism began almost immediately.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the North Korean rocket launch and the recent nuclear test violations of U.N. agreements.
“We absolutely cannot allow this,” he told reporters at the prime minister’s residence. “We will take action to totally protect the safety and well-being of our people.”
Kim Jong Un has overseen two of the North’s four nuclear tests and three long-range rocket tests since taking over after the death of his father, dictator Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. North Korea says its rocket launches are satellite missions, but the U.S., South Korea and others say they are a covert test of ballistic missile technology. The U.N. Security Council prohibits North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity. Experts say that ballistic missiles and rockets in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology.
The Jan. 6 nuclear test has led to another push in the U.N. to tighten sanctions. North Korea in 2013 also did a nuclear test and then unnerved the international community by orchestrating an escalating campaign of bombast, including threats to fire nuclear missiles at the U.S. and Seoul.
The Korean border is the world’s most heavily armed and the rivals’ navies occasionally trade gunfire near a disputed boundary in the Yellow Sea.
North Korea has spent decades trying to develop operational nuclear weapons.
It is thought to have a small arsenal of atomic bombs and an impressive array of short- and medium-range missiles. But it has yet to demonstrate that it can produce nuclear bombs small enough to place on a missile, or missiles that can reliably deliver their bombs to faraway targets.
Still, the North’s nuclear tests and steadily improving long-range rocket launches push its nuclear aims further along.
North Korea has said that plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex are in operation. The country is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs but there is debate about whether it is capable of building warheads small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.
North Korea has spent decades trying to perfect a multistage, long-range rocket. After several failures, it put its first satellite into space with a long-range rocket launched in December 2012.
Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.
Under Kim Jong Un, a February 2012 deal for the United States to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid in exchange for a freeze in nuclear and missile activities collapsed after a rocket launch by the North that April.