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UN Security Council Divided Over North Korea Rocket Launch

  • Nikola Krastev

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il poses with scientists after observing the launch

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il poses with scientists after observing the launch

The United Nations Security Council ended an emergency session on April 5 without agreeing a response to North Korea's launch of a long-range rocket earlier the same day.

Japan, the United States, and the European Union have all condemned the launch as a "provocation," and agree that it was a violation of Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006, which prohibits North Korea from using ballistic missile technology.

But China and Russia, also veto-holding permanent Security Council members, maintain that technical study is required to determine whether the launch was, in fact, a violation.

The divisions within the Security Council suggest there could be protracted negotiations the UN response, and that any text that gets adopted will likely be milder in its condemnation than the United States and Japan would like.

North Korea says the launch successfully put a communications satellite into orbit. The United States and South Korea say the attempt failed, and that debris from the rocket, which overflew Japan, fell into the Pacific Ocean.

By some estimates, North Korea's long-range Taepodong-2 missile -- if launched successfully -- may be capable of reaching the Western coast of the United States.

Yukio Takasu, Japan's ambassador to the UN, said the North Korean launch marked a threat not only to Japan, but also to the countries of the Asian-Pacific region. "The Security Council has to send very clear, strong, firm signal to [North Korea] for this event. And the most appropriate form to take this serious and firm position is a resolution of the Security Council," Takasu said.

No Agreement On Action

Prior to the Security Council's emergency session, the United States said it was seeking "strong collective action" to respond to Pyongyang's defiance of UN resolutions barring the North Korean regime from ballistic missile activity.

Speaking to reporters after the Security Council's more than three-hour closed-door session, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the rocket launch constituted a clear violation of Resolution 1718. Rice said it is irrelevant whether the launch was meant to put a satellite into space, as Pyongyang claims, or had some other goal.

"What was launched is not the issue. The fact that there was a launch using ballistic missile technology is itself a clear violation of the UN Security Council resolution 1718, which prohibited [North Korean] missile-related activity," she said.

China and Russia, however, do not necessarily see the launch as a clear-cut violation. In their view, there is a need for more technical analysis. This was emphasized by Igor Shcherbak, Russia's deputy representative to the UN, who said more time will be needed to understand the technical parameters of the launch.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui said that China fully acknowledges concerns over the incident, but said there's no reason to overreact. "Our position is that [the response] has to be cautious and proportionate," Zhang said. "My delegation would be most willing and ready to join other colleagues to participate and discuss whatever reaction from the council [is needed] in the most constructive and responsible manner."

The divisions within the Security Council suggest that North Korea will not be immediately censured, as the United States and Japan would like, and that there could be protracted negotiations in the coming days over the wording of any text proposed in response to the launch.

A resolution is the strongest form of response by the Security Council. But China and Russia are reportedly leaning toward a presidential statement, a milder form of censure.