from The Los Angeles Times April 4th, 2009
Ending several days of high alert in East Asia, the rocket reportedly crosses Japanese air space before landing in the Pacific. Japan had threatened to shoot it down.
Reporting from Seoul — North Korea launched what was believed to be a multi-stage rocket on Sunday, ending weeks of speculation about the regime’s efforts to expand its ability to deliver nuclear weapons.
The North Korean news agency announced that a rocket was launched about 11:30 a.m. The U.S. State Department, the South Korean president’s office and Japanese media reports confirmed the launch.The rocket reportedly crossed Japanese air space before plunging into the Pacific Ocean, according to press reports from Japan. Japanese officials apparently did not attempt to shoot down the rocket, as they had threatened to do.
North Korea had said it planned to put a communications satellite into space. But many analysts predicted that the launch would actually be a test of the regime’s ability to use the three-stage Taepodong 2 to deliver a warhead.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted government officials in Seoul as saying that the rocket carried a satellite. That report was not immediately confirmed.
The rocket is estimated to have a range of more than 4,000 miles. Some analysts say that with a light payload, it could reach the western U.S.
On Sunday morning, the rogue state had appeared to activate its rocket tracking radar system just minutes before the start of the 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. window given for the launch, according to a South Korean news agency.
East Asia had been on high alert for days as the U.S., Japan and South Korea continued to monitor North Korea. All three nations dispatched ships armed with missile interceptors to the ocean waters around the Korean peninsula.
Jittery military officials in Tokyo acknowledged that they had twice incorrectly announced Saturday that North Korea had launched its rocket.
An embarrassed Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada called “inexcusable” two false alarms hours apart by the nation’s Self Defense Forces that the rocket had lifted off, only to be retracted moments later.
The ministry retracted both announcements, blaming them on computer and communications glitches, according to a report in the Japan Times.
In Seoul, on Saturday, more than 100 anti-North Korea activists had burned a miniature model of a Taepodong 2 missile and clashed with police, according to South Korean media reports.
The rocket launch is intended to precede a gathering Thursday of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, in which the legislative body would rubber-stamp leader Kim Jong Il’s hold on power following elections last month.
In 1998, North Korea used what officials claimed was a satellite launch to herald Kim’s ascension to power. The satellite was intended to transmit back to Earth the “Song of General Kim Jong Il” and Morse code signals for “Juche,” the regime’s political ideology. But analysts never detected a satellite and believe that last stage failed.
“That satellite launch was the prelude to Kim’s coming-out party, when he took the reins as the North Korean leader,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korean expert with the Asia Foundation.
Analysts say Kim has been banking on a successful launch to rally public support, despite ongoing hardships in the isolated society, including poverty and widespread food shortages.