SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 12, 2012— -- United States officials confirm that North Korea appears to have carried out the successful launch of a long-range rocket.
The move comes as a surprise to the international community, which has consistently called on North Korea to abandon its efforts.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the North Koreans had indicated they were grappling with "technical uncertainties" that forced them to extend the launch window to Dec. 29.
The secretive regime insists its efforts are part of a peaceful space program intended to place a satellite into orbit. But the U.S. and key Asian allies believe it is a thinly disguised attempt to test an intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at furthering development of the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range rocket that could one day reach the U.S.
National Security Council spokesman Tom Vietor called the launch a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security."
In recent weeks even China, North Korean's only remaining ally, sent a high level delegation into Pyongyang to convey a message of constraint. Today, China expressed "regret" over the incident. In the past, China has supported North Korea's right to develop its space program.
"The action is yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior," read the National Security Council statement. "The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and is fully committed to the security of allies in the region."
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) acknowledged the launch initiated at 9:49 a.m. local time and followed its intended trajectory, traveling south between Korea and Japan.
"At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America," said NORAD.
Japan's emergency alert system – M-NET – recorded the rocket's flight path directly over Okinawa just after 10:00 a.m. Officials say they have located three points of debris: One in South Korea's Yellow Sea, a second location further down the country's west coast and the third point 180 miles north of the Philippines.
A South Korean military official confirmed that one of their three warships, equipped with the Aegis radar system, detected the launch. The first stage fell just below Byeonsanbando, southwest of the Korean peninsula, exactly where it was supposed to, according to the official.
Increased attention focused on North Korea in recent weeks as satellite images showed action at the Tongchang-ri launch site. But on Monday, a statement from the Korean Committee of Space Technology claimed that scientists and technicians "found a technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite." Satellite images also revealed that a new third-stage booster was delivered to the launch pad on Saturday.
A key issue is how far the rocket traveled and whether it was able to successfully separate its second and third stage rockets. If so, the capacity to travel long distances would be greatly enhanced.
The type of rocket is believed to be the Taepodong 2 missile. The North Koreans refer to it as the Unha-3, which in Korean translates as "Galaxy-3." The same type of missile has been previously tested three times in 2006, 2009 and 2012. Each time, the rocket failed soon after launch. It is believed to have the capacity to travel a minimum of 3,400 miles. That puts it well within striking range of the western U.S.
Overall, this is North Korea's fifth attempt at launching a rocket since 1998.
The U.S. had mobilized four warships in the Asia-Pacific region to monitor the launch. The guided missile destroyers the USS John S. McCain, the USS Benfold and the USS Fitzgerald joined the guided missile cruiser the USS Shiloh to "reassure allies in the region" according to officials.
South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak called an emergency security meeting in response. The timing is particularly sensitive for this country which is still officially at war with North Korea.
In just one week, South Korea holds key elections and will choose a new president. North Korea's successful launch could potentially sway voters favoring either a harsher line or a return to the "Sunshine Policy" of past administrations.
Current ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye has indicated a willingness to hold talks with North Korea.
Her father, Park Chung-hee, served as the South Korean president for 16 years. He was the target of multiple assassination attempts by North Korea. One of those efforts killed his wife, Chung-hee's mother.
Park took over her mother's duties as first lady until her father was assassinated by the chief of security in 1979. She re-emerged in 1997 as an active politician and is the first female candidate to be seriously considered for president.
Her party, the Saenuridang, is a traditionally conservative group that adapts a somewhat stricter policy towards North Korea that her opponent, Moon Jae-in. As head of the Democratic United Party, he champions a more lenient approach to the South's belligerent neighbor.
In repeated breaking news announcements throughout the day North Korean state-run television celebrated the launch. "We are proud of the glorious success of our satellite technology," said the presenter. "This is a landmark achievement."
Dec. 17 marks the one year anniversary of the country's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's death. Analysts believe his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, is under pressure to show the world he is intent on continuing his father's "Military First" policy and demonstrate a show of strength.
While experts do not believe North Korea currently has the technology to mount a nuclear warhead, today's launch is a significant development for the closed country's new leader.