PYONGYANG // North Koreans danced in the streets of their capital yesterday after the regime of Kim Jong-un fired a long-range rocket, defying international warnings and taking a big step forward in its quest to develop a nuclear-tipped missile.
The rocket launch will enhance the twentysomething Mr Kim's credentials at home a year after he took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
It is also likely to bring fresh sanctions and other punishments from the United States and its allies, which were quick to condemn the launch as a test of technology for a missile that could attack the US mainland. Pyongyang said it was merely a peaceful effort to put a satellite into orbit.
The White House called it a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security".
Even China, North Korea's closest ally, expressed "regret" that the launch went ahead "in spite of the extensive concerns of the international community", said the foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei.
India condemned the launch as it tested one of its own ballistic weapons, which were developed when the nation was a nuclear pariah itself.
"This unwarranted action ... has adversely impacted peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula," India's foreign ministry said.
The timing of the launch came as something of a surprise after Pyongyang had indicated technical problems might delay it. That it succeeded after several failed attempts was an even greater surprise.
"North Korea will now turn its attention to developing bigger rockets with heavier payloads," said Chae Yeon-seok, a rocket expert at South Korea's state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute. "Its ultimate aim will be putting a nuclear warhead on the tip."
The Unha-3 rocket was launched just before 10am local time, and was detected heading south by a South Korean destroyer patrolling the Yellow Sea. Japanese officials said the first rocket stage fell into the Yellow Sea west of the Korean Peninsula. A second stage fell into the Philippine Sea farther south.
About an hour and a half after the launch, North Korea proclaimed it a success, prompting dancing in the streets. State media called it a "momentous event" in the country's scientific development.
It was a marked contrast to an attempted launch in April, which broke up soon after lift-off.
Guests and workers at a hotel bar in Pyongyang applauded as they watched the announcement by a female newsreader. Vehicles mounted with loudspeakers drove around the capital announcing the news.
Pyongyang resident Ham Myong-son said he felt "proud to have been born a Korean", and Mun Su-kyong, a dancer dressed in bright traditional clothes, said the launch was something to "boast to the world".
"How happy would our general have been," said Rim Un-hui, referring to Kim Jong-il, who died last year. "I'm confident that our country will be stronger and more prosperous under the leadership of Kim Jong-un."
In reality, the launch could leave Pyongyang even more isolated if the US, South Korea and Japan pursue fresh United Nations sanctions against the North. The UN Security Council was meeting behind closed doors yesterday to discuss its response to the launch.
The timing of the rocket test seems full of symbolism.
It may have been timed to commemorate the first anniversary of Kim's December 17 death and the close of his son's first year as supreme leader. It also closely aligns with next week's South Korean presidential election, and parliamentary elections in Japan, another long-time enemy nation.
Politically, it also sends a powerful message to the world.
Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs, but experts believe it lacks the ability to make a warhead small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.