SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – North Korea launched what appeared to be a space rocket on Thursday, South Korea’s military said, the North’s second such attempt this year after a space rocket crashed in May.
The nuclear-armed country is seeking to put what would be its first military spy satellite into orbit, saying it eventually plans to build a fleet of satellites to monitor the movements of US and South Korean forces.
The missile launch triggered an emergency warning in Japan just before 4 a.m. local time (1900 GMT) via the J-alert broadcast system, asking residents of the country’s southernmost Okinawa prefecture to take shelter in their homes.
About 20 minutes after the warning, the Japanese government followed up with a notification that the missile had passed toward the Pacific Ocean and raised the emergency warning.
In a televised press conference, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said that the repeated missile launches pose a threat to regional security.
He added: “We will protest strongly against North Korea and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the US military was aware of the North Korean launch but declined to provide details.
Two days ago, North Korea said it would launch a satellite from August 24-31.
Pyongyang has said it needs a military reconnaissance satellite to enhance monitoring of US military activities.
But North Korea’s attempt on May 31 to launch a satellite missile, “Cholima-1”, failed, as the missile and payload fell into the sea. The official media blamed the setback on an unstable and unreliable new engine and fuel system.
It was not immediately clear whether North Korea used the Chollima-1 system again or a new system.
“I think it’s plausible that they managed to resolve the possible cause of the phase separation problem that they apparently encountered during the initial attempt to launch Chollima-1,” Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Reuters ahead of Thursday’s launch.
“We’ve seen some static testing of the engine, which will be consistent with efforts to address issues with the initial launch vehicle design.”
Seoul, Tokyo and Washington condemned the missile launch in May, calling it a provocation and a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions banning North Korea’s use of ballistic missile technology.
South Korea recovered parts of that failed missile, including the satellite’s payload, which it said did not appear to have a military capability.
North Korea regards its military and space missile programs as a sovereign right, and analysts say spy satellites are essential to improving the effectiveness of its weapons.
North Korea has made multiple attempts to launch “earth observation” satellites, two of which appear to have successfully been put into orbit, including in 2016.
International observers said the satellite, launched in 2016, appeared to be under control, but there was debate over whether it sent any transmissions.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Chang-ran Kim in Tokyo, Josh Smith, Joyce Lee and Hyunsoo-yim in Seoul – Reporting by Mohamed for the Arab Press Bulletin) Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington. Writing by Josh Smith. Editing by Rosalba O’Brien
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