The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean rocket launch, calling it a "clear violation" of UN prohibitions.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the 15-member Council, which has the power to authorize sanctions, will discuss a set of measures to punish North Korea for violating Council resolutions barring it from pursuing nuclear and ballistic-missile testing.
"Our objective is that this be a clear and meaningful response by the Security Council," Rice told reporters in New York.
North Korea fired a rocket that placed a satellite into orbit, defying existing international sanctions and showcasing the progress of the nuclear-armed totalitarian regime in ballistic-missile technology.
The United States, Japan, South Korea and China criticized the North Korean action, while the Pyongyang government asserted what it said in a statement was a "legitimate" right to launch satellites. China has veto power and may oppose further steps in the Security Council.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command said in a statement that it detected the launch at 9:49 a.m. Korea time, after which the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea and the second dropped into the Philippine Sea. The U.S. agency said the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit, after North Korea's official news agency said the Unha-3 rocket had successfully sent a satellite into space.
The development followed a failed rocket test in April that embarrassed new leader Kim Jong Un, who has been working to secure his hereditary position since the death of his father a year ago. Wednesday's success may bolster North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and South Korea's defense minister said the regime is making progress toward another atomic weapons test.
"Nuclear weapons are meaningless without missile technology and vice versa," said Kim Yeon Su, a professor at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul. "This launch is not just a single event. It is a window into Kim Jong Un's strategic thinking, his security strategy, which is highly worrying."
North Korea could conduct a nuclear test "within a short period of time," South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin said in parliament. Asian stocks stayed higher and the South Korean won was little changed following the launch.
China, North Korea's biggest ally, said it regrets the launch. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing that China wanted the UN Security Council to react prudently and avoid escalating the situation.
President Obama's administration denounced the rocket test, with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor calling it "a highly provocative act" that jeopardizes regional security.
Kim, who succeeded his father Kim Jong Il a year ago, oversees a military-first state with 1.7 million of his 24 million people in the armed services. North Korea has twice detonated an atomic bomb, and the new leader has shown no readiness to respond to calls from the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to return to six-party talks aimed at getting the regime to abandon its nuclear program.
"This is a clear indication that regardless of what the international community does, North Korea believes it must have this capability," David Maxwell, the associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said Wednesday.
North Korea's missile program is now on a par with what the U.S. and the Soviet Union achieved in the 1950s, according to Maxwell. He said it's unclear whether the regime is able yet to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit it on a missile.
"This indicates the ability to throw a missile and perhaps a payload over a long distance, but how accurately they could target that and whether they could marry it to a nuclear warhead, those are other questions," said Tim Huxley, executive director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia in Singapore. "Those are extremely difficult matters to engineer."
South Korean financial regulators met to discuss the event, while seeing a limited impact on financial markets.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters the North Korean action "threatens the peace and security of the region." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement that the launch "is a clear violation" of the world body's restrictions against North Korea. The council barred ballistic-missile and nuclear testing under resolutions 1718 and 1874.
The UN tightened sanctions on North Korea in 2009 shortly after it fired a long-range rocket carrying a communications satellite that failed to enter orbit. The April rocket, which exploded minutes after liftoff, was intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim's grandfather, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.
After today's launch, North Korean journalists toured the mission-control center where they heard patriotic songs transmitted from the satellite, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
"At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th anniversary of President Kim Il Sung," the state-run news agency said in a statement.
— With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa and Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo, Rishaad Salamat in London, Sangim Han in Seoul, Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok, Li Liu in Beijing and David Lerman in Washington.