SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket today, defying international warnings as the regime of Kim Jong Un took a giant step forward in its quest to develop the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead.
The United States, South Korea and Japan quickly condemned the morning launch, which 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.
The regime’s stated purpose for firing its long-range Unha-3 rocket was to put a peaceful satellite into orbit, but the United Nations, as well as the U.S. and its allies, sees it as cover for a test of technology for missiles.
About two hours after the launch, North Korea’s state media proclaimed it a success, prompting customers in the coffee shop at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel to break into applause during a special television broadcast. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, later confirmed that North Korea did appear to have put an object into space.
Today’s launch is likely to bring fresh sanctions on the North, and the White House called it a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security."
NORAD said the rocket traveled south with the first stage falling into the Yellow Sea and a second stage falling into the Philippine Sea hundreds of miles farther south. “Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," NORAD said in a statement.
Japan protested the launch and said one part of the rocket landed west of the Korean Peninsula, and the Philippines said another part landed 186 miles east of its shores. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency national security council meeting today, and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan warned that North Korea will face grave consequences.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Tokyo immediately requested consultations on the launch within the U.N. Security Council. The council will hold closed-door consultations on the launch today at the request of one council member and two other countries, according to the U.N. Mission for Morocco, which holds the rotating council presidency.
A similar North Korean launch in April broke apart shortly after liftoff.
“Clearly this is much more successful than their last attempt," said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It’s at least as good as they’ve ever done. They’ve proved the basic design of it."
He said success would be defined as “something that completes at least one orbit of the Earth."
Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions. North Korea is thought to have only a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs. But Pyongyang is not yet believed capable of building warheads small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.
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.