North Korea launches space satellite, forcing alerts to be sent then retracted in South Korea, Japan

SEOUL/TOKYO – North Korea attempted to launch what it called a space satellite over the sea to the south on Wednesday, South Korea’s military said, as the nuclear-armed North seeks to gain ground in a regional space race.

The launch prompted emergency alerts and brief evacuation warnings in parts of South Korea and Japan, which were then withdrawn with no danger or damage reported.

South Korea’s military said it was analysing whether the launch was successful, as North Korea’s “space launch vehicle” may have broken up in mid-air or crashed after it vanished from radars.

North Korea’s “projectile disappeared from radar before reaching its expected drop point”, said Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

North Korea had said it would launch its first military reconnaissance satellite between May 31 and June 11 to boost monitoring of US military activities.

It joins an increasingly heated space race in the region.

South Korea last week placed satellites in orbit with a domestically designed and produced rocket for the first time, and China sent three astronauts to its now fully operational space station as part of crew rotation on Tuesday.

“Whether or not North Korea’s current satellite mission is a success, Pyongyang can be expected to issue political propaganda about its space capabilities as well as diplomatic rhetoric aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo,” said associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley from Ewha University in Seoul.

Warnings issued

In data provided to the international authorities, North Korea said the launch would carry the rocket south, with various stages and other debris expected to fall over the Yellow Sea and into the Pacific Ocean.

Sirens were heard across Seoul around 6.32am local time (5.32am Singapore time) as the city issued a warning asking citizens to prepare for potential evacuation.

Shortly after, the South Korean Interior Ministry said, referring to an emergency alert that had blared from phones across Seoul after the launch: “We inform you that the alert issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government at 6.41am was issued incorrectly.”

In Japan, the government issued an emergency warning over its J-Alert broadcasting system for residents of the southern prefecture of Okinawa early on Wednesday morning, saying a missile had been launched from North Korea.

The launch initially prompted the activation of a missile warning system for the southern region. 

“Missile launch. Missile launch. North Korea appears to have launched a missile. Please take shelters inside buildings or underground,” said the alert tweeted by the prime minister’s office and carried on national broadcaster NHK. 

A projectile was likely launched about 6.28am, NHK said. 

But around 30 minutes later, the government tweeted that the alert was being cancelled. 

“It is expected that the missile reported earlier will not come to Japan. The call for evacuation is lifted,” it said. 

Japan has activated its missile early warning alarms on several previous occasions in response to launches by Pyongyang, although the alerts are usually lifted quickly.

Japan and South Korea said earlier this week that any launch using ballistic missile technology would be a breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Missile technology

On Tuesday, General Ri Pyong Chol, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, said ongoing joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea required Pyongyang to have the “means capable of gathering information about the military acts of the enemy in real time”.

Before Wednesday’s launch, the US State Department said any North Korean launch that used ballistic missile technology would violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions.

“Space launch vehicles incorporate technologies that are identical to, and interchangeable with, those used in ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles,” a State Department spokesman said.

North Korea has previously attempted five satellite launches, with two satellites placed in orbit, including during its last such launch in 2016. Its capacity for constructing working satellites remains unproven, however, analysts say.

“To the best of our knowledge, North Korea has a very limited capacity to build satellites,” said Dr Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, a US-based organisation in the field of space policy and security.

“They have launched a couple of satellites before, but all of them failed immediately after launch or shortly thereafter and none of them appeared to have any significant capability.” REUTERS


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