North Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket on Wednesday, defying international warnings as the regime of Kim Jong Un took a big step forward in its quest to develop a nuclear missile.
While the rocket launch will enhance the credentials of young leader Kim, who took power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death a year ago, it is also likely to bring fresh sanctions against the country and further complicate relations between North Korea, its neighbors, and the West.
The United States, South Korea and Japan were quick to condemn the morning launch, which they see as a test of technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could one day threaten the U.S. Pyongyang says it was merely a peaceful effort to put a satellite into orbit.
Even China, North Korea’s closest ally, expressed “regret” that North Korea went ahead with the launch “in spite of the extensive concerns of international community,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei.
The White House called it a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security.”
The timing of the launch came as something of a surprise after Pyongyang had indicated technical problems might delay it. That it succeeded after several failed attempts was an even greater surprise.
“North Korea will now turn its attention to developing bigger rockets with heavier payloads,” said Chae Yeon-seok, a rocket expert at South Korea’s state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute. “Its ultimate aim will be putting a nuclear warhead on the tip.”
The Unha-3 rocket fired just before 10 a.m. local time, and was detected heading south by a South Korean destroyer patrolling the Yellow Sea. Japanese officials said the first rocket stage fell into the Yellow Sea west of the Korean Peninsula; a second stage fell into the Philippine Sea hundreds of miles (kilometers) farther south.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, later confirmed that North Korea did appear to have put an object into space. “Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” NORAD said in a statement.
About two hours after the launch, North Korea’s state media proclaimed it a success, prompting dancing in the streets of the capital. State media called it a “momentous event” in the country’s scientific development.
Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Pyongyang is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs, but experts believe it lacks the ability to make a warhead small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.
The success of this launch “allows the North Koreans to determine what kind of delivery vehicle they could use for a potential nuclear warhead,” said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a weapons expert and intelligence analyst.
The U.N. Security Council will hold closed-door consultations on the launch Wednesday, according to the U.N. Mission for Morocco, which holds the rotating council presidency.
North Korea has spent decades trying to perfect a multistage, long-range rocket.
Experts say that ballistic missiles and rockets in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology. This is the fifth attempt at a long-range launch since 1998, when Pyongyang sent a rocket hurtling over Japan. Previous launches of three-stage rockets failed, although North Korea claims its 1998 and 2009 launches were successful. A similar North Korean launch in April broke apart shortly after liftoff.
David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said North Korea showed some technical capability getting the rockets stages to work Wednesday.
“Politically, however, it will certainly have an impact on the way other countries view North Korea,” Wright said.
North Korea under new leader Kim has pledged to bolster its nuclear arsenal unless Washington scraps what Pyongyang calls a hostile policy.
Kim took power after Kim Jong Il died on Dec. 17 last year, and the launch is seen by some as an attempt to commemorate that. It also comes less than a week before presidential elections in South Korea and about a month before President Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term.
North Korean television and radio broadcast word of the launch, and there were vehicles with loudspeakers driving around Pyongyang announcing the news. Customers in the coffee shop at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel broke into applause during a special television broadcast, while elsewhere people danced and asked each other: “Have you heard the news?”
“It’s really good news. It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter space,” said Jon Il Gwang, a Pyongyang resident. “I think our country should continue launching man-made satellites in the future in order to further advance the position of our country as a science and technology power.”
The launches Wednesday and in April came from a site on the west coast, in the village of Tongchang-ri, about 56 kilometers (35 miles) from the Chinese border city of Dandong, across the Yalu River from North Korea. The site is 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the North’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex, and is said to have better roads and facilities than previous sites and to allow a southerly flight path meant to keep the rocket from flying over other countries.
Tensions are high between the rival Koreas. The Korean Peninsula remains technically at war, as the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, and Washington stations nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea as a buttress against any North Korean aggression. Tens of thousands more are in nearby Japan.
This year is the centennial of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un. According to North Korean propaganda, 2012 is meant to put the North on a path toward a “strong, prosperous and great nation.”
The launch also follows South Korea’s recent cancellation, because of technical problems, of an attempt to launch its first satellite from its own territory. Two previous attempts by Seoul in 2009 and 2010 failed.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed two rounds of sanctions on North Korea following its nuclear tests, and a 2009 resolution orders the North not to conduct any launch using ballistic missile technology.
The council condemned the failed North Korean launch in April and ordered seizure of assets of three North Korean state companies linked to financing, exporting and procuring weapons and missile technology.
North Korea has capable short- and medium-range missiles, but long-range launches in 1998, 2006, 2009 and in April of this year ended in failure. North Korea is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs, according to U.S. experts. In 2010 it revealed a uranium enrichment program that could provide a second source of material for nuclear weapons.
Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.
A February deal for the United States to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid in exchange for a freeze in nuclear and missile activities collapsed after the North’s April launch.