PYONGYANG, North Korea In Pyongyang, North Koreans clinked beer mugs and danced in the streets to celebrate the country’s first satellite in space. In Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, leaders pushed for consequences for Wednesday’s successful rocket launch, widely seen as a test that takes the country one step closer to being capable of lobbing nuclear bombs over the Pacific.
The surprising, successful launch of a three-stage rocket similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California raises the stakes in the international standoff over North Korea’s expanding atomic arsenal. As Pyongyang refines its technology, its next step may be conducting its third nuclear test, experts warn.
The U.N. Security Council, which has punished North Korea repeatedly for developing its nuclear program, was to meet privately Wednesday. The White House called the launch a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security,” and even the North’s most important ally, China, expressed regret.
In Pyongyang, however, pride over the scientific advancement outweighed the fear of greater international isolation and punishment. North Korea, though struggling to feed its people, is now one of the few countries to have successfully launched a satellite into space from its own soil; bitter rival South Korea is not on the list, though it has tried.
“It’s really good news,” Jon Il Gwang said as scores poured into the streets after a noon announcement to celebrate the launch by dancing in the snow. “It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter into space.”
The North acknowledges three prior failed attempts at a space launch, in 1998, 2009 and this April. It also is believed to have attempted a launch in 2006. The April launch failed in the first of three stages, raising doubts among outside observers whether North Korea could fix what was wrong in just eight months, but those doubts were erased Wednesday.
The Unha rocket, named after the Korean word for “galaxy,” blasted off from the Sohae launch pad in Tongchang-ri, northwest of Pyongyang, shortly before 10 a.m. local time, just three days after North Korea indicated that technical problems might delay the launch.
A South Korean destroyer patrolling the waters west of the Korean Peninsula immediately detected the launch. Japanese officials said the first rocket stage fell into the Yellow Sea and a second stage fell into the Philippine Sea hundreds of miles farther south.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command confirmed that “initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
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