North Korea says it has successfully fired a rocket that put a satellite into space, defying warnings from the international community that it should not go ahead with a launch many governments saw as cover for testing Pyongyang's ballistic missile technology.
The launch looked certain to further raise tensions across East Asia, and could boost the chances of hawkish candidates ahead of key elections in both South Korea and Japan.
"The second version of satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 successfully lifted off from the Sohae Space Center by carrier rocket Unha-3 on Wednesday," the official Korean Central News Agency declared shortly after neighbouring countries reported the firing of a long-range rocket. "The satellite entered its preset orbit."
It was not immediately clear whether the launch was indeed a success. North Korea has in the past claimed it put satellites into orbit when the rockets actually crashed into the sea. South Korea's Yonhap news agency, quoting a U.S. military source, says the North Korean rocket deployed an "object that appeared to achieve orbit." However, the Kyodo news agency, quoting the Japanese military, said there was no new object orbiting in space.
Foreign Minister John Baird said Canada "unequivocally condemns North Korea's provocative ballistic missile test."
"The regime in Pyongyang is a grave threat to the security and stability of the region and beyond," Mr. Baird said in a statement. "With this latest launch, the rogue regime has once again shown total disregard for its people by choosing to fund military and nuclear programs while the basic needs of the North Korean people go unmet.
"Canada stands with the international community in condemning this reprehensible act."
It was the second long-range rocket fired in the year since Kim Jong-un became supreme leader following the death of his father Kim Jong-il on Dec. 17, 2011. A similar attempt in April broke apart shortly after liftoff, and drew wide condemnation.
Under the younger Mr. Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, North Korea has vowed to boost its nuclear capability unless the United States ends policies – including economic sanctions against Pyongyang and military support for South Korea – that the North considers hostile. The isolated nation has carried out two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and many see the long-distance rocket tests as the next step towards North Korea developing a full-blown nuclear weapons program.
Most experts, however, believe the country is still technologically incapable of developing warheads small enough to mount on a missile.
The latest launch comes exactly a week before closely fought presidential elections in South Korea that have seen the two leading contenders trade barbs over who is best suited to deal with Pyongyang. The two Koreas have been technically at war since a 1950-53 conflict that ended in a truce but no peace treaty. In recent years there have been occasional exchanges of deadly fire across the disputed border.
Wednesday's launch was immediately condemned by South Korea, as well as Japan, which is holding its own elections this weekend. The nationalist right – including politicians who favour amending Japan's pacifist postwar constitution – was already expected to do well in the vote even before Pyongyang's provocative test.
Both Japan and South Korea said the launch violated a 2009 United Nations Security Council resolution barring North Korea from testing ballistic missile technology. The Kyodo news agency said Japan's envoy to the UN would call for an emergency meeting of the Security Council. "We had strongly urged North Korea to refrain from the launch, but they went ahead nonetheless. This is completely unacceptable," Japanese government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said.
A United States government official told the Reuters news agency that it had "noted" the launch and would make a fuller comment after monitoring the situation.
The rocket passed first between China and the Korean Peninsula, before heading over Japan's Okinawa prefecture, where anti-missile batteries had been deployed in anticipation that debris could fall onto the country's territory. Japan said it did not attempt to intercept the rocket, and that it had detected debris falling into the ocean off the coast of the Philippines.
The timing of the launch came as something of a surprise, coming just three days after North Korea announced it might postpone the launch – initially planned for sometime between Dec. 10 and 22 – as late as Dec. 29, citing unspecified "reasons."
The launch also came despite pressure from North Korea's traditional allies China and Russia to call off the planned test. A spokesman for China's foreign ministry said last week that he hoped Pyongyang could take into account "the situation on the Korea Peninsular and restrictions of relevant UN Security Council resolutions" and "act prudently."
If the launch proves to have been successful, it will be a propaganda victory for Pyongyang, which has been in a race with Seoul over which Korea would be the first to put a satellite into space. South Korea recently cancelled a satellite launch of its own due to technical problems, following failed attempts in 2009 and 2010.