NORAD says North Korea launches object into orbit; U.S. says it will pursue 'appropriate action'
SEOUL/TOKYO - Isolated and impoverished North Korea launched its second long- range rocket of 2012 on Wednesday and may have finally succeeded in putting a satellite into space, the stated aim of what critics say is a disguised ballistic missile test.
The rocket was launched just before 10 a.m. Korean time and overflew the Japanese island of Okinawa.
The rocket was detected by U.S. missile-warning systems, and officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command said it deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit around the Earth.
The rocket launch was detected at 7:49 p.m. EST and was tracked on a southerly course, with the first stage of the missile falling into the Yellow Sea and the second stage falling into the Philippine sea, NORAD said in a statement.
"Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," NORAD said. "At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America."
The White House on Tuesday condemned North Korea's rocket launch as a "highly provocative act" in direct violation of U.N. resolutions and vowed to work with international partners to seek "appropriate action" against Pyongyang.
"The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and fully committed to the security of our allies in the region," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, pledging that Washington would increase close cooperation with its friends in the region.
"In the hours and days ahead, the United States will work with its six-party partners, the United Nations Security Council and other U.N. member states to pursue appropriate action," Vietor said. "The international community must work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences."
A rocket launch by North Korea in April was aborted after less than two minutes flight. Wednesday's launch came after the North carried out repairs on the rocket, which South Korean officials said had been removed from its gantry on Monday.
Both South Korea and Japan called meetings of their top security councils after the launch and Japan said it could not tolerate the action. Japanese television station NHK said the second stage of the rocket had crashed into seas off the Philippines as planned.
"Whether the satellite launch (orbit) itself succeeds or not, it is a success for North Korea anyway," said Kim Young-soo, a North Korea expert at Sogang University in South Korea.
"We will convene an emergency security meeting at 10:30. The launch was made around 9.50 a.m.," an official at South Korea's presidential office in Seoul said.
The North launched the rocket close to the Dec. 17 anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il last year and as elections loom in South Korea and Japan.
Pyongyang says it is entitled to launch a satellite into space but critics say the rocket development is aimed at nurturing the kind of technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.
North Korea is banned from conducting missile and nuclear-related tests under U.N. sanctions imposed after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.
The rocket's path was scheduled to pass between the Korean peninsula and China, with a second stage splashing down off the Philippines before launching the satellite into orbit.
Most political analysts believe the launch is designed to bolster the credentials of new leader Kim Jong-un as he cements his rule over the country of 22 million people.
A government official in Seoul said recently that the transition of power to Kim Jong-un did not appear to be going as smoothly as anticipated and there were signs that the regime was concerned over the possibility of rising dissent.
Kim is the third of his line to rule North Korea, whose national output is around one-fortieth of that of prosperous South Korea.
Plans for the launch had drawn criticism from South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States as well as NATO and the United Nations.
The North's only major diplomatic ally, China, has expressed "deep concern" over the launch but is thought unlikely to back any further sanctions against its ally.