SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has launched a long-range “missile,” a South Korean defense ministry official said Sunday, in defiance of U.N. sanctions and warnings from neighboring nations.
Though North Korea had said it planned to put a satellite into orbit, the launch was viewed by other nations, such as Japan and South Korea, as a front for a ballistic missile test.
South Korea said the launch was at 9:30 a.m. local time and the rocket headed south.
A senior U.S. defense official said he can “confirm that we have detected a missile launch from North Korea. Based upon its trajectory as we are tracking it, it does not pose a threat to the U.S. or our allies. We will have more updates soon.”
The Japanese Prime Minister’s office said via Twitter that North Korea’s “satellite” had been launched toward the Okinawa region. “We will update as soon as new information comes in,” the Prime Minister’s office said.
“Forcing the launch is a clear violation against the [United Nations Security Council] resolution and a serious provocation against the security to our country,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.
U.S. officials have said the same type of rocket used to launch the satellite could deliver a nuclear warhead.
Officials for the International Maritime Organization and the International Telecommunications Union each told CNN that North Korea informed their respective organizations that it intends to launch a satellite.
A month ago North Korea said it carried out a hydrogen bomb test — a claim that was viewed skeptically by most of the international community.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also urged North Korea to “refrain” from the launch and said his cabinet was working closely with the United States and South Korea to gather information and prepare a potential response.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang expressed “deep concern” over the launch.
“We hope (North Korea) will exercise restraint and caution in its actions. It should not act in a way that may escalate tensions on the peninsula,” Lu said Wednesday.
North Korea had not given a specific time for the rocket launch, saying it could be launched between Sunday and February 14.
Japanese and South Korean airlines have altered flight paths to avoid possible falling rocket parts. Based on coordinates provided by North Korea to the IMO, the first stage and fairing of the rocket will drop off in waters between South Korea and China. Its second stage is expected to fall into waters off the Philippines’ northern coast.
Satellite… or nuclear missile?
At present, North Korea is believed to have one satellite in orbit, the Kwangmyongsong 3-2, though doubts have been raised about whether it is functioning.
While Pyongyang claims that its space program is entirely peaceful, many international observers think the true purpose is military.
China, the Soviet Union and the United States have all used intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, to launch satellites in the past. During the Cold War era of the 1950s, ICBMs were used by both the United States and the Soviet Union as warhead delivery systems, as well as in the early development of both countries’ space programs.
The Unha rocket used to launch North Korea’s last satellite is believed to be based upon the Taepodong long-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of around 5,600 miles (9,000 km).
That would put Australia, much of Western Europe, and the U.S. West Coast in range of a North Korean warhead.
According to multiple experts, North Korea has at least a dozen and perhaps as many as 100 nuclear weapons, though at present it lacks sophisticated delivery mechanisms.
North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb in early January.
According to a 2015 report on Pyongyang’s space program by 38 North, testing rockets through satellite launches would provide invaluable data for potential future ICBMs.
“Even failed satellite launches would be a learning experience,” wrote aerospace engineer John Schilling.
Schilling said that a key sign to look out for in future North Korean satellite launches would be attempts to test an advanced re-entry vehicle, vital for an effective ICBM.