By Jethro Mullen, CNN
HONG KONG (CNN) — North Korea surprised and angered the international community Wednesday by launching a long-range rocket that appeared to put a satellite in orbit, a breakthrough for the reclusive, nuclear-equipped state.
The North Korean regime said the rocket had successfully blasted off from a space center on its west coast and delivered a satellite into its intended orbit. The launch followed a botched attempt in April and came just days after Pyongyang suggested its plans could be delayed.
North Korea’s previous claims of successful satellite launches have been dismissed by the United States and other countries, but this time it seemed to have pulled it off.
Initial indications suggest the rocket “deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the joint U.S.-Canadian aerospace agency, said in a statement.
The sudden launch, amid freezing temperatures in North Korea, ratcheted up tensions in East Asia, leaving diplomats searching for new ways to pressure a defiant, secretive regime that has pressed ahead with rocket launches and nuclear tests despite international sanctions.
It also undermined theories that the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, might take steps to moderate his nation’s uncompromising approach to foreign relations.
“This is something that we have to worry about,” Philip Yun, who advised former President Bill Clinton on North Korean issues, said about the launch. He noted that it had taken the United States 24 attempts to successfully launch a similar kind of vehicle.
But North Korea still has a lot work of to do “if they’re actually going to mount a nuclear device or a weapon on a rocket,” said Yun, who is executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, a U.S.-based foundation that seeks to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Many nations, such as the United States and South Korea, consider the rocket launch to be a cover for testing ballistic missile technology. The North has insisted its aim was to place a scientific satellite in space “for peaceful purposes.”
Countries around the world quickly condemned Pyongyang’s move on Wednesday, saying it breached U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The South Korean government said the launch was confrontational and a “threat to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the world.” Japan called it “intolerable.”
The United States described the launch as “a highly provocative act” that is “yet another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behavior.”
Washington will work with other countries — including China, Russia and other Security Council members — “to pursue appropriate action,” said Tommy Vietor, a U.S. National Security Council spokesman.
“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,” he said.
North Korea’s key ally, China, expressed regret that the launch had taken place, noting “concerns among the international community.”
“We hope relevant parties stay calm in order to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at a news conference.
Several governments criticized Pyongyang’s decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on its rocket program rather than on assisting its poor, malnourished population.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he deplored the fact that North Korea “has chosen to prioritize this launch over improving the livelihood of its people.”
The North’s failed launch attempt in April scuppered a deal for the United States to provide thousands of tons of food aid to the country.
Analysts have suggested a multitude of reasons for North Korea’s decision to carry out the launch this month. It is the first time it has attempted two launches in the same year, and the only time it has fired such a rocket in the winter months.
South Korean officials and North Korea watchers overseas have identified domestic political concerns as key motivations for Kim, the North’s young leader.
“I think this is very important to Kim Jong Un to build political legitimacy and bolster the spirits of his people,” said James Schoff, a North Korea specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He is doing this despite the fact that he knows he is going to come into a lot of criticism in the region for it.”
The launch has taken place during a period of power consolidation for Kim in which he has purged senior military officers in an apparent effort to stamp his authority on the regime’s leadership.
“If Kim Jong Un pulls off a successful long range missile test, its a very important signal saying that yes I, Kim Jong Un, have replaced the powerful generals,” said John Park, a Stanton Junior Faculty Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It shows that I have found the right balance and I am now in charge.”
The launch also ties in with important dates for the regime’s ruling dynasty.
Pyongyang had said this rocket launch would be “true to the behests” of Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader and father of Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Il died on December 17 last year, so the rocket launch took place just days before tearful mourners are expected to gather for the first anniversary of his death.
Experts had also speculated that Pyongyang wanted this launch to happen before the end of 2012, the year that marks the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
Other factors may also be at play: the launch took place ahead of national elections in Japan on Sunday and in South Korea on December 19. North Korea is a crucial foreign policy issue in both of those countries.
The rocket took off Wednesday morning and flew south over the Japanese island of Okinawa. There were conflicting reports about how many parts fell into the sea.
The Japanese government said it believed one part of the rocket came down in the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula, a second part dropped into the East China Sea and a third fell into waters near the Philippines.
But NORAD said that the first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the sea near the Philippines.
South Korea is still trying to determine if the object the rocket put in orbit “is going to function properly,” said Kim Min-seok, a defense ministry spokesman.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said the satellite, named Kwangmyongsong-3, was “fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth.”
A launch had seemed unlikely to take place so soon after North Korea announced Monday that it was extending the rocket’s launch window into late December, citing technical issues in an engine.
Previous launch attempts by the North in 1998, 2006, 2009 and April this year failed to achieve their stated goal of putting a satellite into orbit and provoked international condemnation.
The rockets launched in 1998 and 2009 flew for hundreds of kilometers but didn’t succeed in deploying satellites, other countries and experts said at the time. North Korea nonetheless insisted that both satellites did reach orbit, with KCNA reporting that they were transmitting “immortal revolutionary” songs back to earth.
The 2006 launch failed soon after takeoff and wasn’t reported by state media.
In April, the North Korean regime invited members of the international news media, including CNN, into the country to observe the preparations for its planned launch. But the strategy backfired when the rocket broke apart shortly after blasting off. On that occasion, state media took the unusual step of admitting the launch’s failure.
— CNN’s Jethro Mullen in Hong Kong reported and wrote. CNN’s K.J. Kwon and Paula Hancocks in Seoul, and Paul Armstrong in Hong Kong, Junko Ogura in Tokyo, and Elise Labott, Barbara Starr, Jamie Crawford and Jessica Yellin in Washington contributed to this report. Journalist Connie Young in Beijing also contributed.