North Korea on Friday defied warnings from the international community and launched a rocket — which then exploded about a minute after takeoff — scattering debris over the Yellow Sea off South Korea.
The North’s three-stage rocket “was airborne for more than a minute before it broke apart,” Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka told reporters at 8:32 a.m., less than an hour after it was launched around 7:40 a.m.
At a separate press briefing, a South Korean military officer said the rocket exploded just one or two minutes after liftoff and about 20 pieces plunged into the sea, Kyodo News reported.
“Debris started falling from an altitude of about 151 km above Baekneyong Island (in northwest South Korea) and was scattered across the sea roughly 100 to 150 km off Pyeongtak and Gunsan,” the officer was quoted as saying.
North Korean state media acknowledged the satellite failed to enter orbit much later in the day, while the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado identified the projectile as a Taepodong-2 missile.
After weeks of escalating tensions over the North’s “satellite” launch, which the global community widely considered a disguised ballistic missile test, the rocket ultimately didn’t pose a threat to any part of Japan’s territory, and the nation’s state-of-the-art missile defense system was not called upon to intercept any debris, Japanese officials said.
Radar systems continued to closely monitor the situation, but neither ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles deployed around Okinawa Prefecture or Standard Missile-3 interceptors aboard Maritime Self-Defense Forces destroyers in the East China Sea were activated.
“Though we are still analyzing the technical data, we believe there is absolutely no threat of Japan being affected by falling debris from the rocket,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Friday morning. “We ask that the public remain calm and proceed with their daily work and routines as normal.”
The Group of Eight foreign ministers, meanwhile, issued an emergency statement after their annual summit in Washington, condemning the North’s act and urging it to refrain from further provocations.
The rocket launch is “a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” a statement issued by the G-8 said.
Despite the North’s embarrassing failure, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered his government to continue collecting information as a matter of urgency. “(I will) do everything I can to provide information to the public” and strengthen cooperation with other countries, Noda said.
But the government has already come under fire for its perceived slow response in confirming the launch and alerting the public.
The U.S. and South Korea issued official announcements swiftly after blastoff, but Japan, which depends on U.S. data, was slower.
The Defense Ministry was alerted to an unidentified object being launched in North Korea around 7:40 a.m. via the U.S. early warning system for ballistic missiles, after American spy satellites detected activity at the launch site. But the government failed to notify the media or the public until 30 minutes later.
The Japan Times received the government’s first email alert at 8:09 a.m. It said “our country has not confirmed the launch yet.”
The next email, received at 8:37 a.m., said it was working to confirm the launch but that “our country’s territory is believed to be unaffected.”
Prior to liftoff, the government repeatedly promised to send out information as quickly as possible, but Fujimura on Friday explained that the plan was to disclose information after double-checking initial data from the U.S. warning system. A time lag was unavoidable, he said.
“Our policy from the start had been to provide information after corroborating it with another source. Therefore, we were using all conceivable measures to confirm the data,” Fujimura said, conceding the contents of messages need to be re-examined.
The caution stems from two bureaucratic misfires triggered by North Korea’s previous rocket launch in 2009, when the government sent out two false alarms that prompted widespread panic. “We considered the incident three years ago and decided to adopt a (double-checking) policy this time,” Fujimura said.
Later in the day, Tanaka said the government handled the day’s events properly.
He said he confirmed the takeoff, flight details and crash of the rocket before assuring the public it posed no threat to Japan at 8:24 a.m.
“I don’t think there were delays (in announcing the rocket launch). We managed it appropriately,” he said.
However the defense minister acknowledged that Japan was late revealing some information to the public compared with the South Korean government.
“There was some difference (in timing) but we did the best we could,” Tanaka said.
Meanwhile no explanation was given regarding the confusion over the chronology of the day’s events, including when the defense ministry notified the Prime Minister’s office of the launch.
“The specific timing of some events can’t be disclosed until we organize the details among the parties involved,” a defense ministry official said.
Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura said Japan is ready to take action against the North’s defiant move, but will not immediately do so by itself. He said that Japan will continue pursuing measures that can be taken in conjunction with the international community.
“I cannot help but say that (the launch) is a grave act of provocation against our nation . . . and it is extremely regrettable. We have lodged a complaint through diplomatic routes,” he said.
Japan imposed punitive measures on the North in July 2006 following a long-range missile test, including a total import-export ban.
Information from Kyodo added.
North Korean rocket launch timeline on Dipity.