However, a senior U.S. defense official said the rocket headed toward space and, based on its trajectory, “did not pose a threat to the U.S. or our allies.”
The United States, Japan and South Korea have called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Sunday, a senior U.S. official told CNN. The South Korean national security council held an emergency meeting in response to the launch, the South Korean President’s office said.
North Korea’s state-run TV said it will make an important announcement at 12 p.m. Pyongyang time (10:30 p.m. ET).
South Korea said the rocket was launched around 9:30 a.m. local time (7:30 p.m. ET) and headed south. The U.S. official said it headed toward the Yellow Sea.
‘A major provocation’
U.S. officials and South Korean leaders immediately criticized the rocket launch.
“This is the second time in just over a month that the DPRK has chosen to conduct a major provocation, threatening not only the security of the Korean peninsula, but that of the region and the United States as well,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said, “North Korea’s launch using ballistic missile technology, following so closely after its January 6 nuclear test, represents yet another destabilizing and provocative action and is a flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch a “challenge to world peace.” She said in a televised address that South Korean officials “don’t know when North Korea is going to do another provocative action, so our government needs to come up with a plan to protect the safety of our people.”
Japan lodged a strong protest against North Korea through diplomatic channels, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference.
Japan’s analysis of the launch indicated parts the rocket fell into four locations offshore after takeoff, the Japanese Prime Minister’s office said Sunday via Twitter.
One location is 150 kilometers west of the Korean peninsula in the Yellow Sea, two other locations are southwest of the Korean peninsula in the East China Sea and a fourth location is about 2,000 kilometers south of Japan in the Pacific Ocean, according to the Prime Minister’s office.
Airlines altered flight paths
The U.S. Forces in South Korea issued a statement saying, “We are aware of North Korea’s rocket launch and are closely monitoring the situation. We continue to call on North Korea to refrain from irresponsible provocations. …
“While we won’t discuss employment of our military assets, no one should doubt that U.S. Pacific Command forces, specifically U.S. Forces Korea, are prepared to protect the American homeland and defend our allies in South Korea, Japan, and the region.”
Officials for the International Maritime Organization and the International Telecommunications Union each told CNN that North Korea informed their respective organizations that it intended to launch a satellite.
Japanese and South Korean airlines altered flight paths to avoid possible falling rocket parts. Based on coordinates provided by North Korea to the IMO, the first stage and fairing of the rocket will drop off in waters between South Korea and China. Its second stage is expected to fall into waters off the Philippines’ northern coast.
Satellite… or nuclear missile?
At present, North Korea is believed to have one satellite in orbit, the Kwangmyongsong 3-2, though doubts have been raised about whether it is functioning.
While Pyongyang claims that its space program is entirely peaceful, many international observers think the true purpose is military. U.S. officials have said the same type of rocket used to launch the satellite could deliver a nuclear warhead.
China, the Soviet Union and the United States have all used intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, to launch satellites in the past. During the Cold War era of the 1950s, ICBMs were used by both the United States and the Soviet Union as warhead delivery systems, as well as in the early development of both countries’ space programs.
The Unha rocket used to launch North Korea’s last satellite is believed to be based upon the Taepodong long-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of around 5,600 miles (9,000 km).
That would put Australia, much of Western Europe, and the U.S. West Coast in range of a North Korean warhead.
According to multiple experts, North Korea has at least a dozen and perhaps as many as 100 nuclear weapons, though at present it lacks sophisticated delivery mechanisms.
North Korea tested hydrogen bomb
“Even failed satellite launches would be a learning experience,” wrote aerospace engineer John Schilling.
Schilling said that a key sign to look out for in future North Korean satellite launches would be attempts to test an advanced re-entry vehicle, vital for an effective ICBM.
A month ago North Korea said it carried out a hydrogen bomb test — a claim that was viewed skeptically by most of the international community.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had urged North Korea to “refrain” from the launch and said his cabinet was working closely with the United States and South Korea to gather information and prepare a potential response.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang had expressed “deep concern” over the launch.
“We hope (North Korea) will exercise restraint and caution in its actions. It should not act in a way that may escalate tensions on the peninsula,” Lu said Wednesday.
North Korea had not given a specific time for the rocket launch, saying it could be launched between Sunday and February 14.