U.S. intelligence failed to predict the North Korean rocket launch, CBS News reported Wednesday evening. And the satellite’s orbit seemed to be unstable.
Pentagon officials insisted to CBS that made no difference in the ability of the American missile defense system to track the rocket as it jettisoned its first stage in the Yellow Sea as planned, and its second in the Philippine Sea before boosting what the North Koreans say is a weather satellite into polar orbit.
U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific and missile defense crews in Colorado had already been placed on alert and did not require warning of a launch. Had the rocket been fired on a trajectory that threatened the United States, officials say interceptors based in Alaska and California would have been ready to shoot it down.
There were preliminary signs on Wednesday that North Korea may not be in total control of a satellite less than 24 hours after it was blasted into orbit, a U.S. official told CNN.
"There are some initial indications they might not have full control," the official said of the device that was the payload for North Korea's first successful long-range rocket launch.
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The official, who has access to the latest U.S. assessment, declined to be identified by name due to the sensitive nature of the information.
The satellite, described by one U.S. defense official as a rudimentary communications satellite with limited capability, is on a polar orbit, meaning it is moving between the North and South poles.
Since there are questions about control, the United States is not certain the satellite is in a fully stable orbit.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea’s rocket launch Wednesday and said it will urgently consider “an appropriate response.”
Whether that means new sanctions against the North, which the United States and its European allies are seeking, depends first and foremost on China, the North’s closest ally which has not made its position clear, the Associated Press reported.
The Security Council said in a brief statement after a closed session that the launch violated council resolutions adopted after North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and a ban on “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
The council noted that after the North’s failed launch in April it demanded that Pyongyang halt any further launches using ballistic missile technology and expressed its determination to take action in the event of another launch.
“Members of the Security Council will continue consultation on an appropriate response ... given the urgency of the matter,” the council statement said.
The successful launch, after several embarrassing failures, takes North Korea one step closer to being capable of sending a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California. It says the rocket was meant to send a satellite into orbit to study crops and weather patterns, and maintains its right to develop a civilian space program.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said that no matter how the North Koreans choose to describe the launch it violates two council resolutions and shows that the country “is determined to pursue its ballistic missile program without regard for its international obligations.”
A council diplomat told the AP that China’s U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong wanted several words and phrases dropped from the American draft: the word “rocket” to describe the launch, the phrase “ballistic missile technology,” and a reference saying the launch “undermines regional security.”
After negotiations among the five permanent council members — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France — the word “rocket” and the reference to regional security were dropped but the phrase “ballistic missile technology” remained.
In April, a similar rocket failed two minutes after launch. This time, North Korea announced it was having technical difficulties and would extend the launch window to the end of December. Whether those difficulties were real or fake, the rocket was quickly prepared for launch without U.S. intelligence detecting it had been fully fueled, CBS reported.
The satellite is now circling the Earth, and is likely to stay up for a year or two, although it appears the North Koreans are having trouble controlling it.
The United States is examining information from Wednesday's launch to gather clues about the capabilities of North Korea's rocket technology that can be converted for use in long-range missiles, CNN reported.
Experts say the launch shows North Korea's rocket has the range to hit Hawaii and parts of the West Coast of the United States.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told CNN he is "confident" the United States could stop an incoming missile from North Korea.
"The fact is, we do have a very strong missile defense that would be able to guard against that kind of potential," Panetta said.
The type of missile North Korea launched is considered a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, meaning it is designed to deliver a payload long distances across the globe or into space, depending how it is configured. It is not generally designed to strike at short distances, such as Japan or South Korea.
The Korean Central News Agency, the official news channel of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, confirmed the successful launch of the carrier rocket Wednesday morning, adding the satellite is now in orbit. The launch was the DPRK's second attempt this year and fifth attempt since 1998.
In a report by state-run media outlet Xinhua, China has expressed vague disapproval of the launch, despite being North Korea's only ally, and released a statement claiming "regret" over the DPRK satellite launch.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei, said in a news briefing: "The Chinese side always holds that [all sides concerned] should find an ultimate way to long-lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula through dialogues and consultation. The DPRK is entitled to the peaceful use of outer space, but that right is currently restrained by relevant UN Security Council resolutions."
North Korea's decision to forge ahead with the satellite launch in spite of some previous technical obstacles shows timing was of significance. The launch converges with several important mid-December dates in East Asia; the first death anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (Dec. 17), the Japanese House of Representatives election (Dec. 16) and the South Korean presidential election (Dec. 19.)
According to Japan Today, Japanese officials' response to the launch was much more unwavering, particularly because the rocket passed over Japan's southern islands of Okinawa.
"Launch time was around 9:49 a.m. The missile that North Korea calls a satellite passed over Okinawa around 10:01. We launched no interception," a government statement read.
Though the government confirmed that Japan did not try to shoot down the North Korean rocket, the Japanese military had been on high-alert among rumored plans for the launch and have strongly condemned North Korea's decision.
"It is extremely regrettable that North Korea went through with the launch despite our calls to exercise restraint; we cannot tolerate this," Osamu Fujimura, chief government spokesperson, said. "We strongly protest to North Korea."