Dec 13, 2012

China - Beijing expresses regret over N. Korean rocket launch

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Deep concern in region as North Korea announces satellite placed in orbit

Beijing expressed regret over Pyongyang's launch of a long-range rocket yesterday amid deep concern among its neighbours.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) said it had successfully placed a satellite in orbit.

The launch, just before 10am, sparked criticism from some countries and triggered plans for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.

Beijing said any response by the United Nations should be "prudent and moderate" to avoid escalating tension.

The successful launch served two purposes, experts said.

It was a welcome present to DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, days before the first anniversary of taking power, and also served as a warning to countries that have pressured or neglected Pyongyang during the past months.

The DPRK, whose previous launch attempt in April ended in failure, has stated that the satellite will be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only, adding that it will abide by international regulations.

But the United States and its allies - the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan - view it as a disguised ballistic missile test banned under UN resolutions triggered by its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

"We express regret at the DPRK's launch in spite of the extensive concerns of the international community," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing yesterday afternoon.

Hong said Pyongyang has the right to make peaceful use of outer space but as a UN member "this right is also subject to the restrictions of UN Security Council resolutions".

Hong said China "believes UN Security Council reaction should be prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation".

"China always maintains that the fundamental approach to the realisation of ensuring peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula should be through dialogue," Hong said, adding China hopes countries will remain calm and maintain peace on the peninsula.

China's response echoed a similar reaction from Russia and followed strong condemnation from the US.

The Japanese government said yesterday the rocket passed over its southern island chain of Okinawa around 12 minutes after liftoff.

The timing of the launch seems to have caught some observers by surprise.

Japan expected that the launch would happen next week, after DPRK space officials said that scientists were considering "readjusting" the timing of the launch.

The DPRK had taken down part of the rocket on its launch pad to fix a technical problem.

"It is impossible for the rocket to lift off from the same launch pad in such a short period of time," Eya Osamu, a specialist on Korean affairs at the Organisation for Asian Studies at Waseda University, said in a TV interview.

"The information collected by Japan, the US and ROK is questionable," Pyon Jin-il, editor-in-chief of Korea Report, said.

So far, no missile parts have been found in Japanese territory. Tokyo did not activate the Japan-US joint missile defence system, which is designed to intercept incoming missiles.

Jin Canrong, deputy dean at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said the launch's timing was significant.

The successful launch has also boosted Pyongyang in its rocket rivalry with Seoul, Jin said.

Late last month, the ROK suspended the launch of its space rocket carrying a satellite after an abnormality was detected in the second stage of the rocket.

The move is also aimed at exerting pressure on the ROK, which insists on setting preconditions for dialogue with the DPRK, and Washington, which has "neglected" Pyongyang under US President Barack Obama, Jin said.

Jin said Washington is likely to seriously push for further sanctions against Pyongyang.

Huang Youfu, a professor of Korean studies at the Minzu University of China, said "the timing also aims to exert pressure on Japan and the ROK" as both will hold elections in December.

"The incident will bring more instability to the region, giving the US and other nations another excuse to increase their military presence and hold military exercises," he said.

Masao Okonogi, a professor of Korean politics at Keio University, told AFP that the launch would thrust Pyongyang close to the top of Washington's national security agenda.

"Putting a satellite into orbit means that you have the technology to get a warhead to a targeted area. Now the DPRK is becoming not only a threat to neighbouring countries, but also a real threat to the United States," Okonogi said.

"The question is whether the satellite was precisely put into the planned orbit or veered off."

US and ROK officials said it would take time to fully analyse the launch.

The UN Security Council was due to meet later yesterday to discuss its response to the launch, with the US and its allies demanding a significant expansion of sanctions.

Zhang Yunbi and Liu Yedan in Beijing and AFP contributed to this story.

Li Xiaokun and Cai Hong

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