(UPI) -- North Korea Wednesday reported the successful launch of a satellite into space aboard a long-range rocket fired in defiance of international and U.N. warnings.
The action by Pyongyang raised security concerns on the already tense Korean Peninsula and questions about whether North Korea had moved closer to being able to target sites as far away as mainland United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
The launch was a surprise in that it came two days after North Korea extended the launch window by a week until Dec. 29, citing "technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite."
In fact, the main concern about the North's long-range rocket launch was that it would only be a cover to test a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons, as Pyongyang has conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, resulting in strong U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting any more such tests. The rocket launch was its second such attempt after a launch failed in April.
In a brief announcement hours after the firing of its rocket from a launch site on its west coast, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said: "The second version of satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 successfully lifted off from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province by carrier rocket Unha-3 on Wednesday. The satellite entered its preset orbit."
Officials of the U.S. Defense Department's North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado acknowledged that U.S. missile warning systems "detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean missile at 7:49 p.m. EST."
The announcement said: "Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea," adding initial indications "are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit" but that the missile or the resultant debris "never posed a threat to North America."
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Victor, in a statement, called the North Korean launch an example of its "pattern of irresponsible behavior" as its use of "ballistic missile technology" despite U.N. Security Council resolutions "is a highly provocative act that threatens regional security ... contravenes North Korea's international obligations, and undermines the global non-proliferation regime."
Victor said the United States "remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and fully committed to the security of our allies in the region" and that as a result of the latest action by the North, the United States "will strengthen and increase our close coordination with allies and partners."
Victor said in the coming days, the United States will work with its Six-Party partners, the Security Council, and other U.N. members to pursue appropriate action. The Six-Party represents the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the United States engaged in the denuclearization of North Korea.
Victor said North Korea is "only further isolating itself" by engaging in such provocative acts by devoting its scarce resources to the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
South Korea's Defense Ministry had been quoted as saying the first stage of the North Korean rocket fell in the Yellow Sea off Byeonsanbando in South Korea's North Jeolla province.
The Japanese government said the rocket passed the southern island chain of Okinawa at around 10 a.m. and fell in waters off the Philippines shortly afterward.
"It is extremely regrettable that North Korea went through with the launch despite our calls to exercise restraint," Japan's chief government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said. "Our country cannot tolerate this. We strongly protest to North Korea."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague in a statement condemned the North Korean action and said: "This provocative act will increase tensions in the region."
Yonhap News Agency quoted a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman that while the North Korean satellite entered the orbit, "we have to wait and see whether it can continue to function normally."
The report said North Korea's state media proclaimed the success as a "ground-breaking" event that paid tribute to former leader Kim Jong Il a year after his death last December. The country is led by his relatively unknown son Kim Jong Un, who is still consolidating his power.
The New York Times reported a successful satellite launch by the North could indicate it has overcome a big hurdle in merging its nuclear weapons program and its intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
But the rocket launch would still go against thinking of some analysts that North Korea might be easing off from its confrontational stand under its new leader.
"A successful test would raise as a top-line national security issue for the (U.S. President Barack) Obama administration the specter of a direct North Korean threat to the U.S. homeland," the Times reported, quoting a recent analysis by Victor D. Cha and Ellen Kim at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The Times also quoted U.S. and South Korean officials as saying all of the North's four multiple-stage rockets previously launched had exploded in air or failed to put a satellite into orbit. But it also quoted U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' observation in early 2011 that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Yonhap quoted experts that the North's apparent success would be a setback to Obama's "strategic patience" of waiting for Pyongyang to change its course first.
"This success will likely affect the way other countries view the North," David Wright, co-director and senior scientist for the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists told Yonhap.
The launch is "the latest alarming chapter in a decades-long story. U.S. policy toward North Korea is a long running failure," said U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., Yonhap reported. Royce is set to become chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The threat of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile has become really serious," a source told Yonhap. "This may prove to be a game changer."