North Korea has succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit after all three stages of the rocket it launched Wednesday separated as planned. The first stage fell into the West Sea off the Byeonsan Peninsula, and the second stage off the coast of the Philippines, some 2,600 km away from the launch pad in Tongchang-ri.
The satellite was put into orbit with technology that could also be used to deliver nuclear warheads. With the successful launch of the rocket in the fifth attempt since it first fired the Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, North Korea has now acquired the technology to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of more than 10,000 km, placing the continental U.S. within reach.
The North would be able to hit targets anywhere in the U.S. if it acquires the technology to build smaller nuclear warheads and enable the missiles to re-enter the atmosphere. The North Korean nuclear threat has grown even bigger.
By pushing ahead with the launch despite repeated warnings from the international community, the regime is trying to boost its young leader and consolidate his grip on power, while pressuring the international community to listen to its demands. Since the North conducted a nuclear test three months after its 2006 rocket launch attempt and 50 days after the attempt in 2009, another nuclear test appears imminent.
North Korea seems to think that the international community will listen to its demands once it shows off its ability to hit targets in the U.S. It is wrong. The latest provocation merely solidifies the belief that Kim Jong-un is no different than his late father Kim Jong-il. The UN Security Council immediately convened an emergency meeting to discuss sanctions, while the U.S., Japan and EU simultaneously called for retaliation. Tough financial sanctions are also being mooted. Only China, which expressed regret at the launch, urged "caution" in applying sanctions.
The next Korean president, to be elected in six days, must take on a nuclear-armed North Korea with ICBMs that can attack the mainland U.S. He or she must not only work closely with allies to stop North Korea from resorting to such provocations but also show shrewd diplomatic skills to radically change Pyongyang's attitude through stronger leverage and cooperation with China.
The government must deeply reflect on the serious security lapses exposed by the latest intelligence gaffe that caught it off guard when the launch went ahead. If officials had scrutinized North Korea's every movement since it announced its launch plan, such a blunder would not have occurred. Such lapses could worsen when full operational control of Korean troops returns to Seoul in 2015, which would inevitably cause changes in intelligence cooperation with the U.S. That must not be allowed to happen.