UN divided on North Korea rocket launch

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The United Nations failed to agree on a response to North Korea's long-range rocket launch despite pressure from Washington and its allies for action, while regional powers weighed the extent of the new security threat.

Analysts said Sunday's launch of the rocket - which flew over Japan during its 3,200 km (2,000 mile) flight - was effectively a test of a ballistic missile designed to carry a warhead as far as the US state of Alaska.

They said an emboldened North Korea would use the first successful launch of its Taepodong-2 missile to extract concessions for showing up at any future round of six-party talks on ending its nuclear programme. It could also seek to water down obligations it signed onto under previous negotiations.

"With this capability, North Korea is equipped with the infrastructure to play the nuclear game and raise the stakes in the six-way talks," said Kim Tae-woo, a nuclear and weapons expert at the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis.

"As a result, more will have to be given to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programme."

The long-running talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States have been stalled since December.

South Korean and Japanese financial markets shrugged off news of the rocket launch. Seoul's main share index was up 0.8 per cent while the won currency was stronger against the dollar as investors cheered Wall Street's gains last week.

Shares in Japan also traded higher, with the Nikkei index up 0.8 per cent after earlier rising 2 per cent.

Japan had called for the emergency UN Security Council meeting on Sunday. But the 15 members agreed only to discuss the matter further, diplomats said.

The United States, Japan and South Korea say the launch violated Security Council resolutions banning the firing of ballistic missiles by Pyongyang, imposed after a nuclear test and other missile exercises in 2006.

Council diplomats said China, the nearest North Korea has to a major ally, and Russia were not convinced the launch of what North Korea said was a satellite was a violation of UN rules. Three other countries supported this view.

"It's 10 against five," one diplomat told Reuters.

The US military and South Korea said no part of the Taepodong-2 rocket entered orbit.

South Korea's biggest daily the Chosun Ilbo, quoting government sources, said the rocket flew 3,200 km (2,000 miles), which would put the US territory of Guam nearly in reach. The newspaper said this was double the range of an earlier version, called the Taepodong-1, fired over Japan in 1998.

In the only previous test flight of the Taepodong-2, in July 2006, the rocket blew apart 40 seconds after launch. The rocket is designed to fly an estimated 6,700 km (4,200 miles).

The successful launch could have implications for security in North Asia, which accounts for one-sixth of the global economy.

Another leading South Korean daily, the JoongAng Ilbo, said Seoul needed to review how it organised its military, which has long focused on a possible conventional war with North Korea.

"North Korea's rocket launch has shifted the security landscape on the Korean peninsula because we must accept the reality that it is capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles," the JoongAng Ilbo said in an editorial.

Ordinary South Koreans, used to the unpredictable behaviour of their impoverished neighbour, were largely unfazed by the launch. But 88 per cent of Japanese respondents to a poll published in the Yomiuri daily newspaper said they were uneasy about North Korea's missile development.

"There should be active public debate as to whether we should have the means to pre-emptively destroy North Korea's missile facilities," Japan's conservative Sankei Shimbun said in an editorial.

Analysts said the rocket launch would bolster the authority of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il after a suspected stroke in August raised doubts about his grip on power in a country that has a "military first" doctrine.

For Washington, a successful satellite launch would have put half the continental United States in North Korean rocket range, holding dozens of cities hostage, arms control experts said.

North Korea is believed to have enough fissile material for several nuclear bombs. But many proliferation experts believe the North does not have the technology to miniaturise a nuclear device for a warhead.

Japan said it would keep pushing for punishment of Pyongyang through a new UN resolution.

"We feel that a Security Council resolution is desirable, so we will keep trying for that," Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone told reporters in Tokyo.

China and Russia have called on all sides for restraint. Both made clear before the launch that they would use their veto power to block any resolution imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang.

US Ambassador Susan Rice and Japanese Ambassador Yukio Takasu both called for a clear and firm response and said they wanted to see a fresh resolution. Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui said any reaction must be "cautious and proportionate".

Washington and Tokyo want a resolution demanding stricter enforcement, and possibly expansion, of an existing arms embargo and financial sanctions.