North Korea defies warnings, launches long-range rocket

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea

successfully fired a long-range rocket on Wednesday, 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 see 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.

Wednesday'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 kilometers (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 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of its shores. South

Korean President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency national

security council meeting Wednesday, 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

Wednesday 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. 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 weren't considered

successful.

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 his father 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.

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 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.

Under Security Council resolutions, nations are also barred from buying or selling weapons with North Korea, a key source

of revenue for its authoritarian government.

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.