North Koreans celebrate launch of long-range rocket

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PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Koreans danced in the streets of their capital Wednesday after the Pyongyang regime successfully fired a long-range rocket, defying international warnings and taking a big step forward in its quest to develop a nuclear-tipped missile.

The rocket launch will enhance the credentials of 20-something leader Kim Jong Un at home a year after he took power following the death of his father Kim Jong Il. It is also likely to bring fresh sanctions and other punishments from the U.S. and its allies, which were quick to condemn the launch as a test of technology for a missile that could attack the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang says it was merely a peaceful effort to put a satellite into orbit.

The White House called it a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security.”

Even China, North Korea’s closest ally, expressed “regret” that North Korea went ahead with the launch “in spite of the extensive concerns of international community,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei.

The timing of the launch came as something of a surprise after Pyongyang had indicated technical problems might delay it. That it succeeded after several failed attempts was an even greater surprise.

North Korean youths in traditional Korean outfit play instruments in front of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate a rocket launch on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

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North Korea will now turn its attention to developing bigger rockets with heavier payloads,” said Chae Yeon-seok, a rocket expert at South Korea’s state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute. “Its ultimate aim will be putting a nuclear warhead on the tip.”

The Unha-3 rocket fired just before 10 a.m. local time, and was detected heading south by a South Korean destroyer patrolling the Yellow Sea. Japanese officials said the first rocket stage fell into the Yellow Sea west of the Korean Peninsula; a second stage fell into the Philippine Sea hundreds of kilometers (miles) farther south.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, later confirmed that “initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”

About an hour and a half after the launch, North Korea proclaimed it a success, prompting dancing in the streets of the capital. State media called it a “momentous event” in the country’s scientific development.

It was a marked contrast to an attempted launch in April, which broke up soon after liftoff. The presence of dozens of foreign journalists invited into the country ahead of that attempt forced the government to make an unusual public admission of failure.

This time, Pyongyang waited, presumably long enough to know the satellite had successfully entered orbit, before making a public pronouncement.

Guests and workers at a hotel bar in Pyongyang applauded as they watched the announcement by a female anchor on a flat-panel television. Vehicles mounted with loudspeakers drove around the capital announcing the news.

Pyongyang resident Ham Myong Son told The Associated Press that he felt “proud to have been born a Korean,” and Mun Su Kyong, a dancer dressed in bright traditional clothes, said the launch was something to “boast to the world.”

“How happy would our General have been,” said Rim Un Hui, another Pyongyang resident, referring to late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died one year ago next week and was succeeded by his young son. “I’m confident that our country will be stronger and more prosperous under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.”

In reality, the launch could leave Pyongyang even more isolated if the U.S., South Korea and Japan pursue fresh United Nations sanctions against the North. The U.N. Security Council will meet behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss its response to the launch.

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