North Korea Claims Success in Rocket Launch
U.S. Confirms Object Reached Orbit; Pyongyang's Effort Is Seen as Provocation and Advancement of Missile Program
A member of the Japan Self-Defence Forces runs toward a Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles unit in Ishigaki on Japan's southern island of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa prefecture, Wednesday, Dec. 12.
SEOUL—North Korea launched a multistage rocket Wednesday that appeared to travel the entire distance of a projected course and put an object into orbit, making it the most successful of the country's five attempts at testing long-range missile technology.
The rocket took off shortly before 10 a.m. local time, flew south over the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and the Philippines, according to Japanese military authorities who tracked it closely because of the potential threat it posed to its Okinawa prefecture.
North Korea issued a brief statement saying the rocket successfully launched a satellite into space. Other countries saw the launch as a cover for a test of long-range missile technology. The U.S. military confirmed the trajectory of what it called a missile and said, "Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit." A senior U.S. official also said late Tuesday that the North Korean missile appeared to successfully launch what could be a satellite into orbit.
Financial markets in Asia showed little initial reaction to the launch.
North Korea conducts its second rocket launch of the year in an apparent step forward in its push to develop long-range missile capabilities. The WSJ's Evan Ramstad explains the ramifications of a successful launch. Photo: AP
U.S. officials have been closing monitoring Pyongyang's preparations in recent weeks worried about the national-security and diplomatic implications.
"North Korea's launch today—using ballistic missile technology despite express prohibitions by United Nations Security Council resolutions—is a highly provocative act that threatens regional security," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement late Tuesday.
China, North Korea's political ally, expressed "regret" over the launch, called on Pyongyang to abide by United Nations restrictions and urged calm over the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea "has the right to make peaceful use of space, but this right is also subject to the restrictions of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions," China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a daily press briefing.
North Korea has attempted four such launches previously. Each failed to reach space but it claimed success in three of the attempts. In its last attempt, in April, North Korea's rocket crashed 80 seconds after takeoff into the Yellow Sea west of South Korea.
Wednesday's apparent lengthy flight appeared to represent a step forward in North Korea's missile program and would likely be welcomed by potential buyers of the North's missiles. Outside military analysts believe Iran, which has purchased North Korean missile technology in the past, sent representatives to North Korea to watch the launch.
North Korea is believed to have amassed enough fissile material for as many as a dozen nuclear weapons. And a successful launch could allow North Korea to threaten American allies in Asia, particularly South Korea and Japan, and, potentially the U.S. itself.
The North has also developed a sophisticated arms trade, supplying American adversaries such as Iran and Syria. The U.S. and its allies have intercepted North Korean shipments of missile components to Tehran, Damascus and Myanmar in recent months. And Washington worries Pyongyang could eventually export its more sophisticated weaponry.
"I would think proliferation would be more of an immediate threat," said Bruce Bechtol, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst who now teaches at Angelo State University. "If this was successful, the Iranians will no doubt buy several of these and they could launch it a number of ways, including a cover of a satellite launch themselves."
About an hour after the launch, South Korean defense officials said they were in the process of confirming the success or failure of the flight. South Korea tracked the rocket via three Aegis ships it deployed for the purpose, a military spokesman said. He added that no unusual movements had been spotted in the North Korean military, which the South monitors via satellites.
"Our government strongly condemns North Korea pushing ahead with this provocation in disregard of repeated warnings and demands from the international community that the launch be called off. North Korea will take grave responsibility for this," South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said.
After detecting the launch, the Japanese government immediately put in motion a carefully rehearsed game plan, alerting ministries and local governments using a special network and the top government spokesman holding a news conference within 30 minutes of the firing.
The swift reaction was in stark contrast to when Pyongyang last launched a ballistic missile in April, when the Japanese government came under fire for taking nearly an hour to confirm the launch.
Calling the launch "threatening to the peace and stability of the region," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the launch, which violates the U.N. resolution, is "extremely regrettable and can't be tolerated."
The missile flew over some small islands in Japan's southern Okinawa prefecture, west of the main Okinawa island that is home to Japanese and U.S. military bases. But the Japanese government said it did not order its military to shoot down any possible debris from the object.
Mr. Fujimura said all three stages of the North Korean rocket fell within foreseen areas.
Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said the government hadn't been able to confirm any "relevant" projectiles in space following the launch, but that it was working with the U.S. on analyses that could take some time.
Mr. Morimoto said that if Wednesday's rocket was the same type that failed in April, it would be a sign of technological improvement in North Korea.
"We will have to say that in general, the technology involved in the missile and launch has been improving if today's rocket was indeed the same model as the one used in the previous launch," he said.
In announcing this launch, North Korea said its scientists learned from mistakes made during the April one. However, analysts believed North Korea's authoritarian regime was attempting to complete the launch by the end of 2012, the centennial of the birth of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong Eun.
The launch happened on the third day of a launch window that initially was set to run from Dec. 10 to 22. On Monday, North Korea extended the launch window to Dec. 29, citing technical difficulties. That led to speculation in South Korea and elsewhere that the launch wouldn't occur until next week at the earliest.
—Carlos Tejada in Beijing, Alexander Martin, Toko Sekiguchi and George Nishiyama in Tokyo, and Jay Solomon and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Evan Ramstad at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared December 12, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: North Korea Claims Success in Rocket Launch.