North Korea, as expected, launched a large multi-stage rocket at the weekend. Parts of the stack fell on either side of Japan. Pyongyang claims that a satellite was put into orbit: Japanese and US air-defence commanders have stated this is untrue.
According to the US Northern Command, the rocket was a "Taepodong-2" long-range missile, which launched at 3:30 PM UK time on Saturday. US and Japanese warships equipped with SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors were on station in the Sea of Japan, but officials of both governments had previously stated that the North Korean rocket would not be interfered with unless it threatened US or Japanese territory.
Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defence command (NORAD) issued a statement saying:
Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean.
No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan.
NORAD and USNORTHCOM assessed the space launch vehicle as not a threat to North America or Hawaii and took no action in response to this launch.
North Korea's official news agency claimed that a satellite had been placed in orbit, where it was transmitting revolutionary songs. However this claim was widely discounted.
The Taepodong-2 design is assessed as potentially being able to deliver a payload as far as the western coast of the USA, or alternatively to put one into low orbit. In its only previous test in 2005, however, it blew up less than a minute after launch. North Korea is believed to have the materials and expertise to make a nuclear bomb, but not yet one small enough to be carried by such a missile.
Based on available reports, analysts are suggesting that the launch, while something of a step forward on the 2005 test, was a failure. It was thought that upper stages had failed to separate, preventing the payload reaching its intended speed and height.
"North Korea has not been able to demonstrate a reliable system capable of being an ICBM or a space launch vehicle," Joseph Bermudez of Jane's Information Group told AFP.
It has been previously suggested that Pyongyang is seeking to prove such a capability: either as a counter to be bargained away in negotiations with the West and Japan, or alternatively for sale to Iran.
US president Obama, attending an EU-US summit in Prague, condemned the launch as "provocative". Gordon Brown, also in the Czech republic, said it was "completely unacceptable", according to the Guardian.
The US and European allies argued at an emergency session of the UN Security Council in New York that the launch had violated a council resolution passed in 2006 following earlier tests. The western powers pressed for a hardline reaction, including strong condemnation and new sanctions.
However these suggestions faced strong resistance from China and Russia. The Security Council session ended early this morning without any agreement being reached. ®