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As North Korea celebrates surprise rocket launch, alarm mounts abroad (+video)

North Korea went ahead with a rocket launch despite international pressure to call it off. Critics say the launch masks a weapons development effort and is a clear violation of UN sanctions.

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The KCNA dispatch conveys a mood of vindication as well as victory.

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“At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-il pervade the whole country,” it says, North Korea’s “scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung.”

Confirming the North's account of the launch

The rocket, according to KCNA, roared off its pad at the Sohae Space Center near the Chinese border at 9:49 a.m. Korea time, 7:49 p.m. Tuesday in the US. South Korean and US officials say the first stage dropped off in the Yellow Sea and the second stage in the Philippine Sea.

The satellite, says the KCNA dispatch, “is fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth."

US, South Korean, and Japanese officials say there’s no way to tell what the satellite is achieving scientifically, but confirmed the rest of the North Korean claim as essentially true.

“The missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” says the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado, adding the assurance that “at no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”

Analysts are less concerned about the details of the launch than they are by North Korea’s total defiance of appeals from friends and foes alike to call it off.

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South Korea's intelligence failure

The sense of concern is nowhere so deep as in South Korea in view of the failure to realize the imminence of the launch.

South Korean newspapers on Tuesday carried headlines reporting a military official as saying North Korea had removed the rocket from its launch pad after extending the final deadline for the launch from Dec. 2 to Dec. 29.

Lee Tae-ho, secretary general of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, often critical of the policies of the conservative government, said he did not see how South Korea’s National Intelligence Service “did not predict the launch” while putting “so much effort into collecting local information.”

That’s a thinly disguised reflection of the claim that the National Intelligence Service is playing a role in the current presidential campaign in which the conservative Park Geun-hye, daughter of long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee, faces the liberal Moon Jae-in in South Korea’s presidential election Dec. 19.

Opinion is mixed over whether the rocket launch hurts or helps Ms. Park, who’s favored to win by a narrow margin.

While the launch shows the weakness of the South Korean government in detecting it, according to one analyst, it also may convince some undecided voters of the need to continue conservative rule against the North Korean threat.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes the launch will inevitably delay moves toward resuming dialogue with North Korea. He also fears a strong UN resolution will only increase North Korea’s drive to conduct a third nuclear test.

“The North Koreans could use that as a pretext for a nuclear test,” says Mr. Cossa, who also is attending the Asan Institute conference. “If they’re planning on a nuclear test, they’re going to do it.”

He also believes tensions could worsen if China, under new leadership, “acts as North Korea’s defense attorney” in the United Nations. “That will put a strain,” he says. In any case, he adds, “the North Koreans will do what they want to do.” 

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