North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket on Wednesday, sharply escalating the security threat posed by the nuclear-armed state and provoking concern from China and global condemnation.
The launch triggered plans for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, which has imposed round after round of sanctions against North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, so far to little avail.
North Korea insisted the mission was not a banned intercontinental missile test but was designed to place a scientific satellite in orbit, and said it had achieved all its objectives.
“The satellite has entered the orbit as planned,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a statement repeated later in a triumphant special broadcast on state television.
Baek Seung-Joo of South Korea's Institute of Defense Analyses said the launch proved Pyongyang's determination “to complete a comprehensive nuclear weapons system” under new leader Kim Jong-Un.
“Apparently North Korea is trying to convince its people that the country remains unshakable under the new leadership and will never collapse,” he said.
Kim Jong-Un was believed to be keen that the launch fell close to the first anniversary of the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-Il on December 17.
A previous launch of the same Unha-3 rocket in April had ended in failure, with the carrier exploding shortly after take-off.
Success this time carries profound security implications, marking a major advance in North Korea's ability to mate an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability with its nuclear weapons programme.
In October, North Korea had said it already possessed rockets capable of striking the US mainland -- a claim which many analysts at the time dismissed as bluster.
“Putting a satellite into orbit means that you have technology to get a warhead to a targeted area,” said Masao Okonogi, honorary professor at Keio University in Japan.
“Now, North Korea is becoming not only a threat to the neighbouring countries but also a real threat to the United States,” Okonogi said.
Washington appeared to be reserving judgement on the launch's implications. A senior administration official said the United States had “noted” the firing and was “monitoring the situation”.
Unusually China -- North Korea's sole major ally and its biggest trade partner and aid provider -- responded relatively quickly with a statement that pressed the country to abide by UN Security Council resolutions.
“All parties concerned should stay cool-headed and refrain from stoking the flames so as to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control,” state news agency Xinhua said, decrying “bellicose rhetoric and gestures” by all.
North Korea is banned from carrying out missile tests under UN resolutions triggered by Pyongyang's two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Japan's government said it “cannot tolerate” the “extremely regrettable” launch, and Britain “deplored” North Korea's decision to go ahead.
In Seoul, President Lee Myung-Bak called an emergency meeting of his National Security Council, while Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan condemned the North's “clear violation” of UN resolutions.
“This is a threat to peace on the Korean peninsula and around the world,” Kim said.
The UN Security Council said it would meet on Wednesday, with one Western diplomat predicting a “strong response”.
According to tracking reports from the South Korean and Japanese armed forces, the rocket took off from the Sohae centre around 9.51am.
Japan, which had deployed missile defence systems to destroy the rocket if it looked set to fall on its territory, said it passed over its southern island chain of Okinawa around 12 minutes after take-off.
The first and second stages fell in the sea west and southwest of the Korean Peninsula, while the third splashed down 300 kilometres (188 miles) east of the Philippines.
North Korea had originally provided a December 10-22 launch window, but extended that by a week on Monday when a “technical deficiency” was discovered.
In 2006 the Security Council imposed an embargo against North Korea on arms and material for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It also banned imports of luxury goods and named individuals and companies to be subject to a global assets freeze and travel ban.
In 2009, it imposed a ban on North Korea's weapons exports and ordered all countries to search suspect shipments.
According to Japanese reports, Japan, the United States and South Korea have agreed to demand the Security Council strengthen sanctions to levels that match those on Iran.
That would include increasing the list of financial institutions, entities and individuals subject to asset freezes.
Much will depend on the stance taken by UN veto holder China.
“China sets the maximum response level in the Security Council when it comes to North Korea,” said a senior South Korean government official. - AFP