Images emerge of N. Korea booster debris; U.S. official: satellite ‘tumbling in orbit’

Updated 9:03 PM EST, Tue February 9, 2016
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Story highlights

Debris recovered from water is being analyzed, South Korea says

North Korea's satellite not functioning in any useful way, U.S. defense official says

Correction: The South Korean military said the rocket's first stage booster "exploded into about 270 pieces." An earlier version of this article misstated the number of pieces recovered.

(CNN) —  

South Korea has released the first images of debris believed to be from a long-range rocket fired by North Korea on Sunday.

The debris was pulled from the sea southwest of Jeju Island shortly after Pyongyang announced it had successfully launched the earth observation satellite Kwangmyongsong-4 into orbit. The recovered debris was being analyzed, South Korea said.

An official with South Korea’s Defense Ministry said that the booster “separated from [the rocket’s] main body and exploded into about 270 pieces.” Officials said the large number of pieces indicated that the rocket’s first-stage booster was fitted with a self-destruct device.

North Korea fired the rocket Sunday despite warnings from a number of countries who claimed the satellite launch was a front for a long-range missile test. North Korea maintains the launch is for scientific and “peaceful purposes.”

The South Korean Defense Ministry released images of the debris on Tuesday, February 9.
South Korean Defense Ministry
The South Korean Defense Ministry released images of the debris on Tuesday, February 9.
The debris is believed to come from a long-range rocket North Korea fired on Sunday, February 7.
South Korean Defense Ministry
The debris is believed to come from a long-range rocket North Korea fired on Sunday, February 7.

’Tumbling in orbit’

On Monday, a senior U.S. defense official told CNN the satellite was “tumbling in orbit” and incapable of functioning in any useful way. South Korea also said the object appeared to be in orbit and that no signal had been received.

Sunday’s rocket launch triggered a wave of international condemnation and prompted strong reaction from an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

On Tuesday, the South Korean government said President Park Geun-hye had an “in-depth” phone discussion with U.S. President Obama.

The leaders shared the view that it was necessary to come up with a variety of sanctions against North Korea – on bilateral and multilateral levels – in addition to U.N. Security Council sanctions, South Korea said.

Park also spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and impressed the importance of sanctions, beyond those imposed by the United Nations.

Defiant celebration

North Koreans celebrated the country’s launch of a satellite into orbit with an official fireworks display Monday night in Pyongyang, state broadcaster KCTV reported.

“We hope that the future of our space technology keeps growing and shines like these fireworks in the sky,” an announcer on the North Korean broadcaster said during coverage of the celebrations in the capital.

Yoon Dong Hyun, vice director of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, struck a defiant note in a speech at the celebrations, vowing the country would continue developing its aerospace technology in the face of international sanctions. Efforts by other countries to block such an advance were “nothing more than a puppy barking towards the moon,” he said.

A South Korean lawmaker said intelligence suggested the launch had likely been timed to coincide to maximize international media impact.

“The date of the launch appears to be in consideration of the weather condition and ahead of the Lunar New Year and the U.S. Super Bowl,” said Jo Ho-young, chairman of the South Korean National Assembly Intelligence Committee.

Swift condemnation

Pyongyang carried out both acts in defiance of international sanctions. Eight nations alongside the European Union and NATO issued statements quickly opposing the launch.

At an emergency meeting Sunday, members of the Security Council “strongly condemned” the launch and reaffirmed that “a clear threat to international peace and security continues to exist, especially in the context of the nuclear test.”

It vowed to undertake punitive actions against North Korea, announcing plans to “adopt expeditiously a new Security Council resolution with such measures in response to these dangerous and serious violations,” according to a statement read by Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations after the meeting.

Sanctions already in place against Pyongyang ban it from working with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, blacklist certain figures and organizations and prohibit the import of luxury goods.

Park called the launch a “challenge to world peace,” while her government announced it would begin talks with the United States to deploy a defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which can intercept missiles in flight.

A U.S. defense official told CNN that plans to implement the missile defense system had been accelerated in response to the launch, and it could potentially be deployed within weeks.

Concerned about U.S. military influence so close to its borders however, China has criticized the plans to implement THAAD, summoning the South Korean ambassador following Seoul’s announcement on the system.

Increased pressure on China

Sunday’s launch heightens international pressure on China, North Korea’s biggest foreign investor, to do more.

Wary of creating a refugee crisis should Kim’s regime collapse, China has been unwilling to implement sanctions that would really put a choke on North Korea’s economy.

“Sanctions are definitely not the aim,” an editorial published Sunday by Chinese state news agency Xinhua said. It did, however, note that Foreign Minister Wang Yi would “continue to exercise strategic composure and play a constructive role in helping seek a solution to the peninsular conundrum.”

Alison Evans, senior analyst for Asia-Pacific at IHS Country Risk, said that Pyongyang had likely calculated that by carrying out the rocket launch so soon after the January 6 nuclear test – before the international community had responded to the latter with new sanctions – it might face less severe repercussions than if the launch and test were responded to individually.