(USA TODAY) - The United Nations Security Council prepared for an emergency session Sunday after North Korea fired a long-range rocket over Japan in a show of contempt for international opinion.
The North Koreans say the Taepodong-2 missile, launched from the Musudan-ri base on their northeastern coast, successfully put into orbit a civilian satellite that transmitted scientific data and serenaded the heavens with songs of praise for dictator Kim Jong-il and his late father and predecessor, Kim Il-sung.
But the U.S. military said "no object entered orbit." North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command officials said in a statement that the first stage of the rocket fell into the waters between Korea and Japan, while the two other stages, and its payload, landed in the Pacific Ocean.
The blastoff, widely seen as a test of a long-range military missile instead of a peaceful space launch, was condemned around the world. The U.S., Japan and South Korea maintain the launch is a violation of a 2006 UN Security Council resolution barring North Korea from firing ballistic missiles.
"North Korea has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint and further isolated itself from the community of nations," President Obama said in Prague, urging Pyongyang to honor the U.N. resolutions and to refrain from further "provocative" actions.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the launch was "not conducive to efforts to promote dialogue, regional peace and stability."
And a joint statement developed by Obama and European Union leaders in Prague said the move was intended to provide North Korea with "the ability to threaten countries near and far with weapons of mass destruction."
The Taepodong-2 has a range of more than 4,000 miles, meaning it could potentially carry a nuclear warhead to Alaska. Analysts play down the military threat to U.S. territory, noting the missile's doubtful accuracy and the fact it can only be launched after several days of preparation time on an open pad - giving the U.S. an opportunity to destroy it preemptively.
Still, researcher Dean Knox of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., wrote before the launch: "The mere possession of a strike capability would be viewed as a tremendous political coup for North Korea."
The launch is expected to give impoverished, isolated North Korea leverage as it bargains for more aid and improved diplomatic relations with the United States' new administration. "A letter to Mr. Obama has been delivered: 'Korea is a nasty place, and you should not forget that, Mr. President. Please send a bit of a paycheck.' It is all blackmail," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Seoul's Kookmin University.
Lankov doesn't expect much from the Security Council session today. North Korean allies China and Russia are sure to veto any attempt to impose tough sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang, leaving room for little more than harsh words. Lankov says he's reminded of the scene in the satirical 2004 movie Team America World Police in which a UN weapons inspector demands the right to search Kim Jong-il's palace "or else."
"Or else what?" the fictional Kim demands.
"Or else we will be very angry with you," the inspector responds, "and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are."
But Lankov admits there are few alternatives. A military campaign against the North would be bloody. Economic sanctions would only hurt ordinary North Koreans, already coping with poverty and hunger. "My advice: pay," he says, and hope that fed-up North Koreans eventually overthrow the Kim regime.