What does North Korea's rocket launch mean?

Defying international sanctions, North Korea on Sunday launched a rocket it said was carrying a satellite into space, but which other nations worry could signal the strengthening of the North's missile technology.

Reuters/Kyodo
A North Korean long-range rocket is launched into the air at the Sohae rocket launch site in North Korea on Sunday.

North Korea’s launching of a long-range rocket Sunday was declared a success by the reclusive state, as countries around the world condemned the operation.

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea's state news agency, reported that the missile launched into space was carrying an Earth-observation satellite called Kwangmyongsong-4. North Korean media hailed the event, but other nations decried it as a breach of sanctions put in place by the UN days after South Korea warned against proceeding with the launch.

Skywatchers say the satellite appears to be in a sun-synchronous, polar orbit about 500 kilometers above the Earth's surface, an orbit consistent with that of an Earth-imaging satellite.

After the Sunday launch went on as planned, other world leaders quickly spoke out against the North’s actions. The AP reported that South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and US National Security Adviser Susan Rice all expressed concerns over North Korea’s missile programs and actions. Even China, the North’s lone ally, articulated its disapproval in a statement from its foreign ministry.

The United Nations Security Council, responsible for many sanctions already leveled against the North, also condemned the launch Sunday and expressed its “intent to develop significant measures” to curb the North’s missile operations, according to Reuters.

“There will eventually be a sanctions resolution,” a diplomat told Reuters. “China wants any steps to be measured but it wants the council to send a clear message to DPRK (North Korea) that it must comply with council resolutions.”

The launch of the missile and possible release of Kwangmyongsong-4 in space comes one month after North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb, an event that also drew international reproach while also garnering praise from the North’s media.

“I extend warm congratulations to our space scientists and technicians,” said Choe Kwang Guk, head of North Korea’s National Meteorological Observatory, on Sunday, according to the KCNA. “The successful satellite launch following the successful H-bomb test encourages us to greet the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea with unprecedented achievements.

In addition to further UN sanctions, the United States could move its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) into South Korea to directly focus on and counteract any future Northern missile launches.

“North Korea continues to develop their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and it is the responsibility of our Alliance to maintain a strong defense against those threats,” said US Forces Korea commander Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti in a statement. “THAAD would add an important capability in a layered and effective missile defense.”

For its part, North Korea said it plans on continuing to launch satellite-carrying rockets into space, despite Sunday's almost immediate international backlash.

“The state agency on space exploration, following the policy of the Workers' Party of Korea on giving priority to science and technology, will continue to launch more man-made satellites,” North Korea’s Moscow embassy said in a statement, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

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