North Korea defies warnings in rocket launch success

The news of the rocket launch was announced on state TV

North Korea has successfully launched a long-range rocket, defying international warnings.

The Unha-3 rocket, launched at 09:49 local time (00:49 GMT), appears to have followed its planned trajectory, with stages falling in expected areas.

North Korea says a satellite has been placed in orbit; the US confirmed an object had been put into space.

South Korea, the US and Japan have condemned the launch as a disguised test of long-range missile technology.

A UN resolution passed in June 2009 after North Korea's second nuclear test banned Pyongyang from ballistic missile tests.

The US called it a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security", while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was a "clear violation" of the UN resolution.

Analysis

North Korea's "satellite launch" has come as a surprise on two counts. The first is that it came unannounced, just two days after Pyongyang extended its launch window, citing a "technical deficiency" in the first stage of its rocket.

The second is that it seems to have been a success. Both North Korea and US analysts seems to agree that the launch was indeed successful and that the rocket placed the satellite into orbit.

That is a vast improvement on North Korea's previous launch attempt in April, when the rocket fell apart into the sea moments after take-off.

Crucially, too, this is the first time that North Korea's claims of success have been backed by key international observers. But the technical success of the launch is about the only thing that Pyongyang and Washington agree on.

The US and its allies allege that North Korea's satellite launches are in fact cover for a long-range missile programme, designed to develop weapons that could strike the US.

Japan has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Reports suggested this could take place later on Wednesday.

The launch comes a week ahead of the South Korean presidential election and roughly a year after the death of leader Kim Jong-il, on 17 December 2011.

'Extremely regrettable'

The three-stage rocket was launched from a site on North Korea's west coast.

"The launch of the second version of our Kwangmyongsong-3 [Unha-3] satellite from the Sohae Space Centre... on December 12 was successful," state news agency KCNA said. "The satellite has entered the orbit as planned."

The rocket had been scheduled to pass between the Korean peninsula and China, with a second stage coming down off the Philippines.

"The missile was tracked on a southerly azimuth [angle]. Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea," a North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) statement said.

"The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit."

Regional media coverage

Most media outlets from South Korea, Japan and China reported the rocket launch at least an hour before Pyongyang's state-run news agency KCNA and the national radio station.

Most TV stations and news portals described the timing as "unexpected", with China's Xinhua news agency an exception.

Xinhua published a commentary a few hours after the launch and defended North Korea's "right to conduct peaceful exploration" of outer space.

After reporting the launch, South Korean and Japanese media quoted officials of the two countries who were sharply critical of it.

The Japanese government, which put its armed forces on alert ahead of the launch, said the rocket had passed over parts of Okinawa prefecture, south of the Japanese mainland.

"The missile that North Korea calls a satellite passed over Okinawa around 10:01. We launched no interception," a government statement quoted by AFP news agency said.

Japan had threatened to shoot down any debris which infringed on its territory, deploying naval vessels and land-based missile interceptors.

Its top government spokesman called the launch "extremely regrettable" and something that Japan "cannot tolerate".

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, meanwhile, called an emergency meeting of his top advisers. His foreign minister said the government strongly condemned the launch.

The US called the launch another "example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behaviour".

A Japanese soldier runs toward a Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor on southern Japanese island of Ishigaki on 12 December 2012 Japan said the rocket passed over its territory, but it did not shoot it down

In China - which is North Korea's closest ally - Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed "regret" at the launch. A commentary from state-run Xinhua news agency called on all parties to remain "cool headed" and engage in "trust-building measures".

April failure

North Korea had said two days ago that the launch could be delayed because of a technical problem, extending the window until 29 December.

South Korea, the US and other nations had urged North Korea not to go ahead, warning that it would constitute a test of long-range missile technology banned by the UN.

Washington and its allies say the rocket launches represent banned missile tests because the basic technology is the same.

North Korea's rocket launches

  • Dec 2012: North Korea launches three-stage rocket, says it successfully put a satellite into orbit; US defence officials confirm object in orbit
  • Apr 2012: Three-stage rocket explodes just after take-off, falls into sea
  • Apr 2009: Three-stage rocket launched; North Korea says it was a success, US says it failed and fell into the sea
  • Jul 2006: North Korea test-fires a long-range Taepodong-2 missile; US said it failed shortly after take-off

North Korea is believed to be working on the development of a long-range missile capable of reaching the west coast of the US mainland.

It has not previously successfully launched a three-stage rocket. Its most recent test, in April 2012, ended in failure, when the rocket flew for only a few minutes before exploding and crashing into the sea west of the Korean peninsula.

The closed communist nation has also carried out two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. International talks on ending its nuclear ambitions have been stalled for several years.

Officials fear it could be working towards a missile on which a nuclear warhead could be mounted - but it is not thought to have fully developed either the missile or the warheads yet.

North Korea missile route map

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