TOKYO — North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit on Wednesday, showing off an improving weapons program that Washington and its allies have struggled to curb despite heavy international sanctions.
Though the Unha-3 rocket did not carry a warhead, it relied on technology similar to that of a long-range missile, leading Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to describe the launch as the de facto test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Officials in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington all promised a stern response. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the United States would work with other nations, as well as the United Nations, to pursue “appropriate action.”
The incident illustrates what analysts described as the growing security risk posed by North Korea, as well as the increasing challenge facing Western countries as they search for ways to prevent such actions by the reclusive communist country.
Pyongyang’s family-run government is already cut off economically from almost every country but China. United Nations sanctions have made it more difficult for the North to launder its illicit money, import its luxury goods and acquire some weapons materials. But U.N. sanctions and bans have not stifled North Korean missile launches, nuclear tests or weapons trades.
Instead, the North does as it pleases, relying on domestic and illegally imported technology, in part because it has little fear about further international condemnation, some security analysts said.
North Korea says its satellite-launching program is about space research, not weapons technology, and is permissible under an international space treaty.
“The right to use outer space for peaceful purposes is universally recognized by international law, and it reflects the unanimous will of the international community,” North Korea’s state-run news agency quoted its Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying Wednesday.
“No matter what others say, we will continue to exercise our legitimate right to launch satellites and thus actively contribute to the economic construction and improvement of the standard of people’s living while conquering space.”
Some U.S. officials call Pyongyang their most vexing diplomatic challenge. Over the last 20 years, various U.S. governments have tried to pressure the North, engage with it, approach it one-on-one, and deal with it in groups that include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
President Obama’s approach to the North is often described as “strategic patience” — essentially, using sanctions while also pushing leader Kim Jong Eun to cease his bad behavior, with the promise of engagement if he does.
Critics of the Obama administration said Wednesday that North Korea’s launch should prompt the White House to rethink its strategy and give Pyongyang greater attention.
“The Obama administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund,” Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. “We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.”
Royce called the U.S. policy toward North Korea a “long-running failure.”
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the “provocative and destabilizing” launch amounted to “ ‘Groundhog Day’ once again” and violated U.N. Security Council resolutions. “It will only succeed in further isolating an already isolated North Korea, and the United States, our allies, and our partners will take appropriate steps to safeguard our national security,” he said in a statement.
Weapons development is North Korea’s pet project, used to show off the strength of a country that struggles with food shortages, bans dissent and sends political criminals to prison camps. A South Korean official told the Yonhap news agency that the North had spent between $2.8 billion and $3.2 billion on its weapons program over the last 14 years, dating back to its first failed long-range missile test.
But until Wednesday, the spending had delivered little clear payoff. Four previous long-range rocket and missile tests — three for the purported purpose of placing a satellite into orbit — all failed. One broke up 40 seconds after launch. Two traveled more than a thousand miles. The previous rocket, in April, exploded about 90 seconds after takeoff and dropped into the sea.
Wednesday, everything went as North Korea planned. Its three-stage rocket sailed southward, slicing between China and South Korea, then soaring over Okinawa. One booster stage, as planned, dropped in the Yellow Sea. Another dropped in the East China Sea, near the Philippines. The third and final stage carried the payload — a satellite named Kwangmyongsong-3 — into orbit, where it was detected by international tracking systems.