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North Korea defies warnings and launches long-range rocket


North Korea fired a long-range rocket today in a second launch under its new leader, defying warnings from the UN and Washington.

North Korea declared the launch of a rocket and satellite a success, and state television planned a special broadcast about the launch.

South Korean and Japanese officials confirmed that lift-off took place. Along with the US, they had been urging Pyongyang to refrain from a launch widely seen as a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology.

South Korean defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told a nationally televised news conference that a South Korean Aegis-equipped destroyer deployed in the Yellow Sea detected the launch but South Korea did not know if the launch was successful. North Korea had indicated technical problems with the rocket and recently extended its launch window to December 29.

Japan said one part of the rocket landed west of the Korean peninsula and another part was expected to have landed east of the Philippines. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak planned an emergency national security council meeting later, and Japan protested over the rocket launch.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power after his father Kim Jong Il died on December 17 last year, and the launch came days before South Korean presidential elections and about a month before president Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term.

The North said the Unha rocket was meant to put a satellite in orbit. A similar launch in April broke apart shortly after lift-off, and the condemnation that attempt received is likely to be repeated. Washington sees the launch as a cover for a test of technology for missiles that could be used to strike the United States.

Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions. Pyongyang is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs, but is not yet believed to be capable of building warheads small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.

North Korea said it chose a safe flight path so debris would not endanger neighbouring countries, but there are still concerns over falling debris, and Japan's defence minister issued an order to missile units to prepare to intercept the rocket if it or its fragments threatened to hit Japan. Government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said later that no debris hit Japanese territory.

The first stage of the rocket was expected to fall in the Yellow Sea and the second stage in waters east of the Philippines, according to South Korea. Mr Fujimura described two confirmed debris sites in those general areas after the launch.

The White House condemned the launch as a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security".

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor calling it "another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behaviour".

In a statement, Mr Vietor said the US "remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations", and will work with other nations and the UN Security Council "to pursue appropriate action" against North Korea.