PRAGUE, Czech Republic – From New York to Prague, world leaders criticized North Korea’s long-range rocket launch on Sunday, but there appeared to be little appetite for escalating the confrontation with the isolated regime that defied international warnings with its early morning test.
North Korea’s launch of its Taepodong-2 rocket came on the same day President Barack Obama, in a speech in the Czech capital, pledged the United States to the long-term goal of ridding itself and the world of nuclear weapons.
But North Korea’s testing of a rocket that analysts fear could someday be fitted with a nuclear warhead underscored how hard that goal will be to achieve – and the challenge Obama faces from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
“This morning, we were reminded again why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat. North Korea broke the rules once more by testing a rocket that could be used for a long-range missile,” Obama said at the outdoor speech in central Prague.
“This provocation underscores the need for action, not just … at the U.N. Security Council but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons,” he said. “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”
The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session Sunday afternoon to debate the launch. But despite Obama’s call for action, it seemed likely the 15-member council would only criticize North Korea and ask it to return to stalled six-nation talks on eliminating its nuclear weapons. The Security Council decided Sunday to take no immediate action but agreed to continue discussions on a response.
China, a veto-bearing permanent Security Council member, opposes any additional sanctions on North Korea. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu called in a statement for “cool-headedness and restraint.”
The long-anticipated launch of the Taepodong-2, which had been observed for weeks on its launch pad, took place Sunday morning local time. The rocket flew over northern Japan, with debris landing harmlessly in the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s Northern Command.
The rocket failed to put its payload, believed to be an experimental communications satellite, into orbit, Northern Command said in a statement.
North Korea’s state-controlled news agency, however, said the rocket succeeded in placing in orbit a satellite that was broadcasting revolutionary songs.
Estimates of the Taepodong-2’s range vary widely, but some put it at as much as 6,200 miles, in theory enough to hit the Western United States.
The launch was the first challenge to Obama from Pyongyang, which has bedeviled past U.S. presidents and extracted concessions with its nuclear brinkmanship.
Aides to Obama said they woke him shortly after the launch was confirmed at 4:30 a.m. Prague time, and he consulted with military and intelligence advisers through the morning.
The president had long planned to deliver a major address in Prague on the threat from nuclear proliferation, and he said North Korea’s action underscored his dual message: to maintain a U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as anyone poses a threat but then to rid of the world of the threat altogether.
Obama pledged to downplay U.S. nuclear weapons as a keystone to its defense, while strengthening what is widely seen as an increasingly shaky international system to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
“Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he said to cheers from an audience of 20,000.
“This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence,” he said.
Obama spelled out a broad, three-part plan:
•Changing U.S. nuclear strategy and working with Russia to further slash stockpiles of warheads.
•Working to control the spread of weapons, including creating an international fuel bank to let non-nuclear powers get materials needed for nuclear power without developing the capacity to create material for weapons, as is feared in Iran.
•Starting a new international effort to secure from terrorists all the materials needed for nuclear weapons.
Fraught with symbolism, Obama chose to deliver the speech in a city that once tried bravely to defy Soviet oppression in 1968 and where, he said, the Velvet Revolution overthrowing communist rule in 1989 “proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”
And he spoke in the center of a Europe so often divided by war but now “peaceful, united and free because ordinary people believed that divisions could be bridged, that walls could come down, and that peace could prevail.”
But the Czech Republic is also a potential host to a U.S. missile defense site that is deeply unpopular with most Czechs and opposed by Russia.
Obama said plans for the missile defense – which is not yet proven to work – are warranted so long as Iran is suspected of seeking a nuclear weapon.
“As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven,” he said as anti-missile defense protesters stood vigil near the square.
“If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe at this time will be removed,” he said.
Obama stressed that the United States will “maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary” as long as nuclear weapons exist. But he insisted that the United States will “begin the work of reducing our arsenal.”
He echoed his earlier announcement that the United States and Russia will work to negotiate a new treaty this year cutting their nuclear arsenals.
Also, he said he will immediately push for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
On another front, Obama said he’ll work to stop the spread of weapons to non-nuclear countries, by pursuing a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials intended for use in weapons.
He’ll also try to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with more international inspections and with “real and immediate consequences” for those that break the rules.