SEOUL/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - North Korea fired a long-range rocket on Sunday, provoking international outrage, but a divided U.N. Security Council failed at an emergency meeting to agree on a reaction to Pyongyang’s defiant move.
The reclusive communist state, which has tested a nuclear device and is in stalled six-party talks on ending its nuclear program, said a satellite was launched into orbit and was circling the Earth transmitting revolutionary songs.
The United States and South Korea said the Taepodong-2 rocket failed to enter orbit. Analysts said the launch was effectively a test of a ballistic missile designed to carry a warhead as far as the U.S. state of Alaska.
Western countries and Japan said the action violated a 2006 Security Council resolution demanding that Pyongyang not launch any more ballistic missiles and that it suspend all activities linked to its ballistic missile program. The resolution followed the nuclear test and missile tests by North Korea.
“With this provocative act, North Korea has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint, and further isolated itself from the community of nations,” U.S. President Barack Obama said.
China, the nearest North Korea has to a major ally, and Russia called on all sides for calm and restraint.
The 15-nation Security Council held a closed-door session in New York on Sunday afternoon but China and Russia had already made clear they would use their veto power to block any resolution imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang.
Western diplomats said the two countries, backed by Vietnam and Libya, sought to water down the council response.
Council members “agreed to continue consultations on the appropriate reaction by the council ... given the urgency of the matter,” Mexico’s U.N. Ambassador Claude Heller, who holds the body’s rotating presidency, told reporters.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and Japanese Ambassador Yukio Takasu both called for a clear and firm response and said they wanted to see a fresh resolution. But Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui said any reaction must be “cautious and proportionate.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier called on North Korea to return to the six-party talks with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
The launch was the first big challenge for Obama in dealing with North Korea, whose efforts to build a nuclear arsenal have long plagued ties with Washington.
Addressing a crowd in Prague during a European tour, Obama said Washington would seek to engage all nuclear weapons states in arms reduction efforts. Obama remained committed to talks to “denuclearize” North Korea, the White House said.
South Korea branded the launch a “reckless” act, Japan said it was “extremely regrettable” and the European Union condemned Pyongyang’s step. NATO called it “highly provocative.”
“There is only one response possible: the union of the international community must punish a regime that doesn’t respect any international rules,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called her counterparts in Japan, South Korea, Russia and China to discuss the situation, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Analysts said the rocket launch may bolster North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s authority after a suspected stroke last August raised doubts about his grip on power.
Kim toured the command centre and witnessed the launch, North Korea’s official news agency KCNA reported, saying he met those who “contributed to the satellite launch by devoting all their wisdom and enthusiasm with ardent patriotism and warmly encouraged them before having a photograph taken with them.”
China and Russia have said they are not convinced Sunday’s launch violated U.N. rules if the rocket carried a satellite.
Washington and Tokyo want to see a resolution demanding stricter enforcement, and possibly expansion, of an existing arms embargo and financial sanctions.
“We will go back and work to both toughen existing regimes but (also) to add to that resolution,” Rice said before the council meeting, speaking of the 2006 resolution, number 1718.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called officials in the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea to discuss the launch, the Foreign Ministry said.
“All sides ought to look at the big picture (and) avoid taking actions which may exacerbate the situation further,” a Chinese statement said. Russia’s foreign minister also called for a “balanced approach and caution” at U.N. discussions.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo had said before the launch that in reality it would be a test of the Taepodong-2, which is designed to fly an estimated 4,200 miles (6,700 km).
The U.S. Northern Command said stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan and the other stages, along with the payload, landed in the Pacific Ocean. No debris fell on Japan.
South Korea earlier said the rocket appeared to be carrying a satellite but Defence Minister Lee Sang-hee later told parliament it failed to orbit, Kyodo news agency reported.
In the only previous test flight of the Taepodong-2, in July 2006, the rocket blew apart 40 seconds after launch.
Sunday’s launch wins North Korea the attention it has sought as Obama’s new administration deals with the financial crisis and two wars, and it could bolster Kim’s hand in using military threats to win concessions from global powers.
“North Korea is likely to judge that its negotiating position has been strengthened now that it has both the nuclear and missile cards,” said Shunji Hiraiwa of Shizuoka Prefectural University in Japan.
Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, said while the six-party talks were central to efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, Washington was ready for direct contact with Pyongyang.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Kim Yeon-hee in Seoul, Linda Sieg and Rodney Joyce in Tokyo, Caren Bohan and Matt Spetalnick in Prague; Editing by Vicki Allen