Progress boosts the profile of North Korea's new dictator, but draws international criticism

North Korea, a nation titled by former President George W. Bush as part of "The Axis of Evil", shook the international political sphere Wednesday when it appeared to successfully launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

I. Kim Jung-un is Boosted by Surprise Success

The Asian nation recently saw power pass from the late dictator Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jung-un, 28 (or 29, according to some sources).  The last two decades have taken their toll on Kim Jung-un's isolated kingdom, with a famine in the 90s wiping out an estimated 10 percent of the population, and amidst ongoing struggles with poverty.  A third of North Koreans are estimated to be malnourished, at present.

In short, the nation's young leader has grown desperate for successes to continue his campaign to put a positive spin on the country's direction and quell unrest.

And he got one on Wednesday.  

After a delay due to unspecified launch issues, South Korean and Japanese officials detected a rocket launch just before 10 a.m., which flew out over the Pacific.  Later this morning came word from The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) who said that the missile "deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit."

NK rocket laucn
The launch was North Korea's first successful trip into orbit. [Image Source: Reuters]

North Korean state television station KCNA took to the air in a festive announcement, with its announcer garbed in colorful traditional garb and with propogandist tunes piping in the background.  The announcer said, according to Reuters, "The satellite has entered the planned orbit.  Chosun (Korea) does what it says."

"At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sun."

The confirmation from NORAD (a joint defense effort of the U.S. and Canada) is the first time the U.S. has confirm North Korea's bold claims of successful test launches.  North Korea has seen a string of prior launches end in fiery failures.  For example, during an April launch while North Korea boasted of great success, NORAD and Asian ally states believe that missile crashed only 2 minutes after launch.

II. White House Condemns Launch

The launch brought condemnation from the U.S. and many of its allies.  U.S. officials called it "highly provocative" and suggested the launch inched the hostile nation closer to intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, which could allow the nation to strike targets in the mainland U.S.  

The White House in its statement comments, "The international community must work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences."

Japan has already filed a complaint with the U.N. requesting a special U.N. Security Council meeting.  However, the possibility of furth sanctions against North Korea is unlikely, as China -- a key ally of North Korea -- is expected to block any such move.

North Korea defended the launch, saying it merely launched a weather satellite into orbit, and calling the effort a "peaceful project".  KCNA comments, "The attempt to see our satellite launch as a long-range missile launch for military purposes comes from hostile perception that tries to designate us a cause for security tension."

III. Missile Defense Systems Could Block North Korean Nukes

Currently, North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium to potentially build half a dozen nuclear bombs.  However, technologically it is estimated to be at least several years away from being able to create a functional warhead, which it has expressed a desire to do.

But the nation has received a boost from Middle Eastern ally Iran -- another member of the "Axis of Evil" and persistent thorn in America's side.  U.S. intelligence tracked missile shipments travelling from Iran to North Korea over the last year; it is believed that much of the missile was constructed in the increasingly high-tech Middle Eastern nation.

Iran has denied helping North Korea, but according to intelligence officials Iranian observers were spotted on the ground in the Asian nation, taking notes on the launch.

The Middle Eastern nation has been regularly in the news, after it was also accused of funneling rockets to Islamist militants in the recent conflict between Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Israel.  In that conflict the Israel Defense Forces are estimated to have shot down between 80 and 90 percent of dangerous hostile rockets using their high-tech "Iron Dome" missile interceptor system.

Japan and South Korea have similar missile interceptors systems -- Patriot-missile based systems co-developed with the U.S. and partially deployed -- to ward off potential threats from China or, particularly, North Korea.  However, they declined to fire test those systems on the North Korean missile, after China issued a warning advising against counter-measures.

Patriot interceptor
A member of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces is seen running to PATRIOT Interceptor Missile battery on Wednesday.  Japan and U.S. declined to intercept the North Korean rocket after being warned by China. [Image Source: Reuters]

Nonetheless, in months to come expect the U.S. and its allies to focus on establishing a strong countermeasures perimeter capable of shooting down North Korean nuclear warheads, should it try to launch them in future conflcts.

Sources: Reuters, The White House

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