BEIJING - North Korea's launch of a long-range rocket Wednesday in defiance of international warnings prompted denunciations from the U.S. and its allies 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 governments of the United States, South Korea and Japan quickly condemned the morning launch and experts on the Korean Peninsula weighed in on the international repercussions of the successful launch following several failed attempts.
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, which came as something of a surprise after Pyongyang had indicated technical problems might delay it, 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.
In Seoul, Tong Kim, an international relations expert at Korea University, said Pyongyang has its own domestic agenda behind the missile program, and remains confident it can ignore the "hollow warnings" of the international community. "They couldn't care less what's going on in South Korea's election and couldn't care less what the Chinese position is either," he said.
"The No.1 motivation is domestic, as new leader Kim Jong Un is in power for about a year, and this will lock in his leadership, have a unifying effect on different groups within North Korea and demonstrate to his people he is following his father's wishes," Tong said.
The launch should force a strategic rethink by the U.S. government and its allies, as, despite years of warnings, North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon, he said. "We must look at North Korea as it is. We need to look afresh at all the strategy as it's failed. What is the most practical, pragmatic way to prevent any possible clashes between North and South Korea?"
South Korean media reports earlier that the launch would be postponed left Masao Okonogi "a little astonished" by Tuesday's launch. But Okonogi, a specialist on the Korean Peninsula at Kyushu University in southwestern Japan, sees a familiar pattern behind Pyongyang's actions -- boosting the Kim dynasty, and looking for a deal with the outside world.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding leader Kim Il Sung and the one year anniversary of grandson Kim Jong Un as Supreme Commander of the People's Army, he said. "It's very strange, but the new Kim Jong Un regime launches a missile but still wants negotiation with other nations."
"They are raising the stake of negotiations, and some months later they can freeze the launch of missiles, or nuclear testing, and begin negotiations," Okonogi said. "Without launching a missile, they have no means of negotiation. Once they launch they can get a deal, as that's what happened in the past."
President Obama's policy of "strategic patience" partly contributed to Tuesday's launch and will be criticized in the U.S., he predicted. Despite the launch breaking U.N. resolutions, North Korea's international isolation may start to ease, as imminent elections bring in new leaders in both Japan and South Korea, who will soften their nations' tough approaches, Okonogi said. The next South Korean president "will seek a more co-operative, moderate line," while Tokyo "will have to talk if the North Korean side wants to start talks, for example, on the abduction issue," he said.
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."
"This time, just like previous times, all international pressure on North Korea, including Chinese, is ineffective. They are themselves, and they love their rocket, missile and nuclear programs," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at People's University of China in Beijing, at Seoul airport Tuesday morning.
Although the U.S., Japan and South Korea will push for a new sanctions resolution, "China will not agree," said Shi. Beijing may be forced to concede a few additional sanctions, but not a new sanctions resolution, which would go against previous Chinese practice, as Beijing insists a new resolution should only be for a further nuclear test, he said.
In Seoul, Shi noted little surprise at Tuesday's missile test. "They are used to it," he said. On the eve of South Korea's presidential election Dec. 19, "one strategic purpose (of Pyongyang) is to influence the South Korean people," Shi said. Despite this launch, "whoever wins will take a more mild attitude to North Korea compared to Lee Myung Bak," he predicted.
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 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 Obama is inaugurated for his second term.
The launches Wednesday and in April came from a site on the North Korea's west coast, in the village of Tongchang-ri, about 35 miles from the Chinese border city of Dandong. The site is 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.
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.