PYONGYANG, North Korea – North Koreans danced in the streets of their capital today after the regime of young leader Kim Jong Un successfully fired a long-range rocket, defying international warnings and taking a big step forward in its quest to develop a nuclear-tipped missile.
The rocket launch will enhance the 20-something Kim’s credentials at home a year after he took power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il. It is also likely to bring fresh sanctions and other punishments from the U.S. and its allies, which were quick to condemn the launch as a test of technology for a missile that could attack the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang says it was merely a peaceful effort to put a satellite into orbit.
The White House called it a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security.”
Even China, North Korea’s closest ally, expressed “regret” that North Korea went ahead with the launch “in spite of the extensive concerns of international community,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei.
The timing of the launch 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.
“North Korea will now turn its attention to developing bigger rockets with heavier payloads,” said Chae Yeon-seok, a rocket expert at South Korea’s state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute. “Its ultimate aim will be putting a nuclear warhead on the tip.”
The Unha-3 rocket fired just before 10 a.m. local time, and was detected heading south by a South Korean destroyer patrolling the Yellow Sea. Japanese officials said the first rocket stage fell into the Yellow Sea west of the Korean Peninsula; a second stage fell into the Philippine Sea hundreds of miles farther south.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, later confirmed that “initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
About an hour and a half after the launch, North Korea proclaimed it a success, prompting dancing in the streets of the capital. State media called it a “momentous event” in the country’s scientific development.
It was a marked contrast to an attempted launch in April, which broke up soon after liftoff. The presence of dozens of foreign journalists invited into the country ahead of that attempt forced the government to make an unusual public admission of failure.
This time, Pyongyang waited, presumably long enough to know the satellite had successfully entered orbit, before making a public pronouncement.
Guests and workers at a hotel bar in Pyongyang applauded as they watched the announcement by a female anchor on a flat-panel television. Vehicles mounted with loudspeakers drove around the capital announcing the news.
Pyongyang resident Ham Myong Son told The Associated Press that he felt “proud to have been born a Korean,” and Mun Su Kyong, a dancer dressed in bright traditional clothes, said the launch was something to “boast to the world.”
“How happy would our General have been,” said Rim Un Hui, another Pyongyang resident, referring to late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died one year ago next week and was succeeded by his young son. “I’m confident that our country will be stronger and more prosperous under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.”
In reality, the launch could leave Pyongyang even more isolated if the U.S., South Korea and Japan pursue fresh United Nations sanctions against the North. The U.N. Security Council will meet behind closed doors today to discuss its response to the launch.
The U.N. has already imposed two rounds of sanctions that followed underground nuclear tests, and a 2009 resolution orders the North not to conduct any launches using ballistic missile technology. Today’s launch would appear to violate that order.
Still, North Korea under new leader Kim has vowed to continue pursuing its nuclear ambitions unless Washington scraps what Pyongyang calls a hostile policy.
The timing of the rocket test seems full of symbolism.
It may have been timed to commemorate the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s Dec. 17 death and the close of his son’s first year as supreme leader. It also closely aligns with next week’s South Korean presidential election, and parliamentary elections in Japan, another long-time enemy nation. President Obama is due to be inaugurated for his second term next month.
Politically, it also sends a powerful message to the world.
Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs, but experts believe it lacks the ability to make a warhead small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.
North Korea also has spent decades trying to perfect a multistage, long-range rocket capable of carrying such a device. Since ballistic missiles share similar bodies, engines and other technology to rockets used in satellite launches, experts see the North’s rocket launches as a thinly veiled cover for its missile program, despite Pyongyang’s insistence that it is a peaceful satellite program.
There were four previous attempts at a long-range launch, dating back to 1998 when Pyongyang sent a rocket hurtling over Japan.
The success of this launch “allows the North Koreans to determine what kind of delivery vehicle they could use for a potential nuclear warhead,” said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a weapons expert and intelligence analyst.
David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said North Korea showed some technical capability getting the rockets stages to work today.
“Politically, however, it will certainly have an impact on the way other countries view North Korea,” Wright said.
Today’s launch, like the one in April, came from a site on the 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.
The launch, which comes amid high tensions between the rival Koreas, also puts the North a step ahead of South Korea in the race to space. Seoul recently canceled its own attempt to launch its first satellite from its own territory, citing technical problems. Two previous attempts by Seoul in 2009 and 2010 failed.
“It’s really good news,” Jon Il Gwang, a Pyongyang resident, told the AP. “It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter space. I think our country should continue launching man-made satellites in the future in order to further advance the position of our country as a science and technology power.”