North Korea successfully launches long-range rocket

SEOUL - North Korea fired a long-range rocket Wednesday days before the first anniversary of its former ruler's death, magnifying the threat posed by the nuclear-armed state and provoking outrage from the US.

Regional US allies were also angered and even China expressed concern at the successful launch by its wayward communist ally - while also calling on all sides to avoid "stoking the flames."

The launch triggered plans for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, which has imposed round after round of sanctions against North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes.

North Korea insisted the mission was not a banned intercontinental missile test but was designed to place a scientific satellite in orbit, and said it had achieved all its objectives.

"The satellite has entered the orbit as planned," Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a statement repeated later in a triumphant special broadcast on state television.

North American Aerospace Defense Command officials said the launch appeared to have successfully put an object in orbit.

Masao Okonogi, a professor of Korean politics at Keio University, said the launch would thrust North Korea close to the top of Washington's national security agenda.

"Putting a satellite into orbit means that you have technology to get a warhead to a targeted area. Now, North Korea is becoming not only a threat to the neighbouring countries but also a real threat to the United States," Okonogi said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was believed to be keen that the launch fall close to the first anniversary of the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-Il on December 17.

KCNA hailed it as a "ground-breaking" event that paid tribute to the late Kim's vision and leadership.

The launch took many observers by surprise, coming after many experts said North Korea appeared to be running into technical problems caused by the bitter winter weather.

A previous launch of the same Unha-3 rocket in April had ended in embarrassing failure, with the carrier exploding shortly after take-off.

Success this time carries profound security implications, marking a major advance in North Korea's ability to mate an intercontinental ballistic missile capability with its nuclear weapons programme.

In October, North Korea had said it already possessed rockets capable of striking the US mainland -a claim that many analysts at the time dismissed as bluster.

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