WASHINGTON — Backing away from its initial assessment, the State Department said Monday that the object launched by North Korea in the western Pacific two weeks ago was a satellite and not a missile. But, it said, the military implications could be ominous for North Korea's neighbors either way.
"We have concluded that North Korea did attempt to orbit a very small satellite. We also have concluded the satellite failed to achieve orbit," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.
The administration had largely ignored official North Korean statements that the Aug. 31 launch involved a satellite. This was partly because U.S. analysts had not observed any object orbiting Earth that correlated with the orbital data that the North Koreans provided in their public statements.
The test caused deep anxiety in Japan because North Korea launched the object over Japan's main island. The test suggested that North Korea could strike any portion of Japanese territory.
Rubin said the military implications are similar whether the test involved a missile or a satellite.
"The North Koreans have demonstrated in this launch a capability to deliver a weapons payload against surface targets at increasing ranges, confirming the inherent capability to threaten its neighbors," he said.
He added that the United States regards the test as "a threat to U.S. allies, friends and forces in the region."
The test has increased tensions between Japan and North Korea and was a reminder of Japan's vulnerability to attack. It has drawn renewed calls for a missile defense system in Japan.