SEOUL – North Korea defiantly carried out a provocative rocket launch today that the U.S., Japan and other nations suspect was a cover for a test of its long-range missile technology.
Liftoff took place at 11:30 a.m. local time today from the coastal Musudan-ri launch pad in northeastern North Korea, the South Korean and U.S. governments said.
An emergency session of the UN Security Council has been called for 3 p.m. today.
The multistage rocket flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese broadcaster NHK said, citing its government.
"Our primary concern is to confirm safety and gather information," Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso told a news conference at his Tokyo office.
The launch was a bold act of defiance against Aso, U.S. President Barack Obama, Hu Jintao of China and other leaders who pressed Pyongyang in the days leading up to liftoff to call off a launch they said would threaten peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
The U.S., South Korea, Japan and others suspect the launch is a guise for testing the regime's long-range missile technology – one step toward eventually mounting a nuclear weapon on a missile capable of reaching Alaska and beyond.
They earlier vowed to take North Korea to the UN Security Council for a launch they said violates a 2006 resolution barring the regime from ballistic missile activity.
South Korea's presidential Blue House called the launch a ``reckless" move that poses a "serious threat" to stability on the Korean peninsula.
Obama said Friday the launch would be "provocative" and said the U.S. would "take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can't threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity."
The apparently successful launch of a long-range rocket could be a boost to the reclusive country's leader, Kim Jong-il.
Kim, 67, is believed to have suffered a stroke last August.
Analysts say a successful launch would help Kim shore up support after speculation about his health raised questions about his grip on power. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said last week that Kim was apparently in better health and had a continued hold on power.
The impoverished North will try to stir domestic pride by telling its people it has launched a satellite ahead of its rich Southern neighbour, which plans to do so later this year, while signalling to Obama that Pyongyang should not be ignored.
It should be a patriotic showstopper for the carefully choreographed opening of the North's rubber stamp Supreme People's Assembly on Thursday that can also help Kim pave the way for succession of one his three known sons, if he so chooses.