Despite earlier reported technological problems and severe winter weather, North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket Wednesday over the Pacific, the second stage of which fell 300 km east of the Philippines.
The launch marks a significant boost in Pyongyang’s quest for ballistic missiles that could hit Japan and other neighboring countries.
The Unha-3 rocket, which Pyongyang claimed was carrying a satellite, lifted off at 9:49 a.m., flying over Okinawa around 10:01 a.m. Its second stage fell into the Pacific off the Philippines at 10:05 a.m., according to Tokyo.
No debris or damage was reported in Japanese territory.
Pyongyang’s last attempt, an April rocket launch, ended in failure when it exploded about a minute after liftoff.
This time, though, the rocket came down in an area earlier projected by Pyongyang, with South Korean authorities calling the launch a success, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Pyongyang was believed using the launch to test technology needed to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads as far as the U.S. mainland.
“I have to say that there have been developments in their (ballistic) missile technology and launching (skills),” Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto told reporters in Tokyo after the launch.
“I believe it will cause various problems for the security of neighboring countries.
“We have to raise our defense capabilities as high as possible,” he added.
Tokyo immediately expressed concern over the North’s “grave act of provocation.”
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, called the launch “extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable,” and vowed to “cooperate with the international community and take strong measures against North Korea.”
“No damage has been confirmed within Japan and I would like to ask the public to act calmly and go about your daily routines,” Noda added.
Pyongyang has insisted the rocket was carrying an “Earth observation satellite,” but the launch was viewed by Japan, the U.S. and South Korea as a cover for testing ICBM technology, which is prohibited by U.N. resolutions.
North Korea said the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite carried by the Unha-3 rocket had successfully entered orbit as planned.
Following the launch, Japan lodged a complaint against the hermit state and asked the U.N. Security Council president to “immediately summon” the body. A meeting was expected to be held later Wednesday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Japan would seek further U.N. resolutions or sanctions against Pyongyang.
A decision on separately imposing further sanctions would be considered after the U.N. Security Council meeting, he added.
The media and public were caught off guard with the sudden launch as there were reports Tuesday that the rocket had been dismantled and removed to fix technical problems, suggesting liftoff was not imminent.
Morimoto said the government confirmed that the rocket had been removed from the launchpad at one point but refused to comment further citing security concerns.
Fujimura said that a special meeting of Cabinet members held early Wednesday had reached the conclusion that the launch would take place “within the next few days,” and he admitted they had found few reasons to expect an launch so soon.
Previous reports said North Korea, a declared nuclear state, planned to lengthen the launch window apparently because of harsh winter weather.
“After analyzing various pieces of information, we shared the understanding that North Korea was capable of firing a missile within the next few days,” Fujimura said. “However, we did not believe it would be fired immediately.”
The Defense Ministry received data from the U.S. satellite early warning system at around 9:51 a.m. and confirmed the launch at around 9:54 a.m., the ministry said. At around 9:57 a.m., Morimoto called Fujimura, notifying him of the launch confirmation.
The rocket flew over Okinawa at 10:01 a.m., and the first stage was estimated to have fallen approximately 200 km west of the Korean Peninsula in the Yellow Sea at 9:58 a.m., the Defense Ministry said.
A minute later, another object was estimated to have fallen about 300 km southwest of the peninsula in the East China Sea, the ministry said. And at around 10:05 a.m., the remnants of the rocket were estimated to have fallen some 300 km east of the Philippines in the Pacific.
Orders to destroy the rocket with previously deployed Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles or Standard Missile-3 interceptors aboard Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers were not issued because Japanese territory faced no threat from falling debris, a government official said.
Tokyo had earlier deployed the antiballistic missile systems, and was closely monitoring the rocket’s flight path.
In April, the government faced harsh criticism for failing to quickly disclose information on that launch. This time, however, the first notice was sent out via email less than 10 minutes after the launch.
“We learned our lesson from April and improved (our methods) and I think we were pretty much able to handle the situation smoothly,” Fujimura said.