BEIJING — North Korea caught the world by surprise on Wednesday morning with the launch of a long-range rocket that it said had successfully put a satellite in orbit, a move that the West views as part of a military program aimed at one day being able to deliver a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, the joint U.S.-Canadian agency that monitors man-made objects in space, said the launch apparently had succeeded. “Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” the command said in a statement.
The news marked a major domestic success for the nation’s young and untested leader, Kim Jung Un, a man thought to be in his late-20s who formally took power after the death of his father last December. But it was also likely to bring new United Nation’s sanctions against North Korea and its secretive and dictatorial regime.
The Obama administration immediately denounced the launch, saying that “North Korea is only isolating itself by engaging in such provocative acts.”
“Devoting scarce resources to the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons has not brought (North Korea) security and acceptance by the international community – and never will,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
Unlike an April attempt that crashed just after liftoff, the three-stage Unha-3 rocket appeared to fly according to its planned trajectory. The South Korean Yonhap News agency quoted officials as saying the first stage fell into the sea off the coast of the Korean peninsula and what appeared to be its second stage went down off the Philippines.
While North Korea had announced its intentions to launch the Unha, or Galaxy, this month, its official news agency on Monday cited a “technical deficiency” in its first-stage engine and said the launch period would be extended to Dec. 29. Observers were left to wonder whether it would happen at all.
Despite the apparent success of the launch, North Korea still has not produced a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile or built a rocket capable of reaching the United States.
The launch, nevertheless, was sure to enflame regional tensions with both its timing and defiance of United Nations’ resolutions.
In Japan, which has parliamentary elections on Sunday, the Kyodo News agency reported that the nation’s envoy to the U.N. had requested a meeting of the Security Council. In South Korea, where a presidential election is scheduled for Dec. 19, President Lee Myung-bak called a meeting of his national security council.
The turn of events could harden the view of many in the neighborhood toward not only Pyongyang but its backers in Beijing, who, as North Korea’s primary benefactor, have been unable or unwilling to quiet North Korea. It may well feed into general anxiety about the regional policies of an increasingly assertive China, a nation whose rise has edged many countries, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, closer diplomatically to the United States.
For Beijing, the North represents a buffer from U.S.-allied South Korea, but also a headache with its penchant for headline-grabbing incidents and the potential for destabilizing a border it shares with China.
“This is obviously going to be a source of embarrassment for China,” said Rory Medcalf, an analyst of the region’s geopolitics and director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, a research center in Sydney.
The North has a long history of dangerous provocations. Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, bringing condemnation and UN sanctions. It was blamed in March of 2010 for launching a torpedo from a submarine and sinking a South Korean naval ship and killing 46 sailors. That November, it shelled a South Korean island with artillery, killing four people.