BEIJING — After five attempts over 14 years, North Korea appears to have launched a satellite into orbit, taking a step toward deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile.
A three-stage Unha 3 rocket was launched at 00:49 GMT, according to North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad).
“The missile was tracked on a southerly azimuth. Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea,” Norad says. “The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
North Korea claimed a successful launch, although it has done that before when its satellite has failed to reach orbit.
Importantly, China for the first time expressed “regret” at North Korea’s rocket test and reminded the country of its obligations to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions — indications of growing impatience in Beijing with Pyongyang.
The Unha 3 departed from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on the west coast of North Korea. It reportedly passed over the Japanese island of Okinawa. The location of the stage splashdowns suggests that the mission launched its satellite into polar orbit, as an unsuccessful Unha 3 mission attempted to do in April.
The Unha 3 is apparently a derivative of the earlier Unha 2. The satellite, which North Korea says is for Earth observation, is called Kwangmyongsong 3.
The strategic importance of a satellite launch is that it indicates an ability to drop an equivalent payload anywhere on the Earth — or a larger payload over a shorter range. But while North Korea has tested nuclear bombs, it is not thought to have engineered one small enough for launch by any rocket it has yet developed.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said that a U.S.-supplied long-range radar, which it had put into service only the day before, detected the rocket passing 200 km (120 mi.) east of the island. The first stage hit the sea near South Korea and the second stage near the Philippines, it says.
North Korea tried but failed to launch satellites in 1998, 2006, 2009 and in April of this year.