North Korea has launched a long-range rocket despite international calls to abandon the effort, U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials said Wednesday.
A South Korean military official confirmed that one of their three warships equipped with Aegis radar system detected the launch. The first stage fell just below Byunsan, southwest of the Korean peninsula, exactly where it was supposed to, according to the official.
Japanese chief government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said the launch occurred at 9:49 a.m. and the rocket passed over Okinawa at 10:01 am.
U.S. officials also confirmed the launch and one said the missile "went along the trajectory we expected it would go."
The secretive regime had been saying it would launch the rocket, but over the weekend announced plans of a possible delay due to "unspecified reasons."
North Korea has insisted the launch is simply part of an effort to develop a peaceful space program and place a satellite into orbit. But the U.S. and other key allies, including China and Russia — which traditionally support North Korea — believe it is a thinly disguised attempt to test an intercontinental ballistic missile.
With further development, such technology could be used to develop a missile that could one day reach the United States.
Official state media blamed the delay on a technical glitch. A statement from the Korean Committee of Space Technology claimed Monday that scientists and technicians "found a technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite."
Satellite images also revealed that a new third-stage booster was delivered to the launch pad on Saturday.
It was not yet clear today whether they had succeeded in separating the third stage of the rocket. In 1998 and in 2009 they succeed in separating the second stage. In 2006 and in April 2012 both launch attempts failed only minutes after liftoff.
If they succeed in separating the third stage, the rocket could reach as far as Los Angeles.
The United States has mobilized four warships in the Asia-Pacific region to monitor and possibly shoot down the launch. The guided missile destroyer the USS John S. McCain and the guided missile cruiser the USS Shiloh join the USS Benfold and USS Fitzgerald, also guided missile destroyers, to "reassure allies in the region" according to officials.
Though some analysts in South Korea expressed doubts that a launch would actually take place this year, citing poor weather in addition to the technical challenges, South Korea had upped its defense level to "Watchcon 2," which is issued when there is a possible viable threat to the nation. South Korea usually occupies a "Watchcon 3" status due to the official state of war with the North.
North Korea's actions are timely as many notable events overlap this month. Dec. 17 marks the one year anniversary of the country's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's death. Analysts believe his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, is under pressure to show the world he is intent on continuing his father's "Military First" policy and demonstrate a show of strength.
The planned rocket launch is also seen as a political statement. It may coincide with the South Korean presidential election, scheduled for Dec. 19. For presidential candidate Park Geun-hye in particular, North Korea holds particular meaning. Her father, Park Chung-hee, served as the South Korean president for 16 years. He was the target of multiple assassination attempts by North Korea. One of those effort killed his wife, Chung-hee's mother. Park took over her mother's duties as first lady until her father was assassinated by the chief of security in 1979.
Park re-emerged in 1997 as an active politician. She is the first female candidate to be seriously considered for president. Her party, the Saenuridang, is a traditionally conservative group that adapts a stricter policy towards North Korea than her opponent, Moon Jae-in. As head of the Democratic United Party, he champions a more lenient approach to the South's belligerent neighbor.