Defying international warnings, North Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket on Wednesday. The launch was something of a surprise because Pyongyang had indicated technical problems might delay it.
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North Korea has successfully launched a long-range rocket, said to be carrying a satellite. But the U.S. and the U.N. see the launch as a cover for testing missile technology, which they fear eventually could lead to an intercontinental missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The White House is calling the launch a highly provocative act and another example of, quote, North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior.
NPR's Louisa Lim begins her story with a news report from North Korea.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This was the triumphant announcement on North Korean television. The overwhelming message: North Korea delivers on its promises. There's now been confirmation from the U.S. military that North Korea has put an object into orbit.
The timing surprised the international community, just two days after Pyongyang announced technical problems might delay the launch. But independent observers say it went well.
JONATHAN MCDOWELL: I think this is a fully successful launch. For a country's first orbital launch, it's actually pretty good. I was not expecting them to be that accurate.
LIM: Jonathan McDowell at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He says a North Korean satellite can be tracked in elliptical orbit, some 60 miles lower than the path originally announced.
MCDOWELL: It's a significant technical achievement. So yes, I'd say they're roughly where the Russians were at the end of the '50s - roughly where the U.S. was at the end of the '50s. But they're a long way off from being a competitor in space.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: For North Korea, this comes one year after the sudden death of its leader, Kim Jong-Il.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: A launch attempt in April failed when the rocket broke into pieces shortly after take-off. An unusual broadcast told North Koreans about this failure.
MRS. JU: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: It was very sad, says one North Korean called Mrs. Ju as she remembers the failed launch: I felt that my country had been shamed in front of the world. This success will ease that humiliation for Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong-Un.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt from the International Crisis Group says there are overwhelming domestic factors behind the launch.
STEPHANIE KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: I mean it's mostly domestic, I would say. It's certainly a move to solidify Kim Jong-Un's rule and legitimacy. So I think that really it is a case of prestige for him, and solidifying the policy of transition. 2012 was also an important year for North Korea, being the year that it was supposed to become strong and prosperous.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: The global chorus of condemnation has been loud and clear. Japan was quick off the mark, calling the launch intolerable. It's called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council later today.
North Korea is banned under U.N. resolutions from pursuing missile and nuclear-related technology. Even North Korea's traditional ally China expressed its displeasure, albeit mildly. Here's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei.
HONG LEI: (Through translator) We express regret at North Korea's launch despite the extensive concerns of the international community.
LIM: But a commentary on the state-run news Xinhua news agency went further, urging Pyongyang to suspend all activities relating to its ballistic missile program.
The timing is significant. South Korea and Japan are set to hold general elections in the next week. Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt says this launch is ratcheting up regional tensions.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: The fact that several countries prepared for debris to come down on them and were worried, you know, about even having some kind of fallout from the missile launch also increases insecurity and frankly puts pressure on countries, you know, such as Japan, to possibly break out of a peaceful foreign policy. So I think that this is just another one of those ingredients into already a very volatile mix in Northeast Asia.
LIM: That mix could become more volatile still. South Korea's defense minister is warning that the North could follow up with a nuclear test. But the international community is left with few tools at hand. There's little left to sanction, and so far international condemnation has done little to sway Pyongyang from its path.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.