North Korea declared the launch of a rocket and satellite a success early Wednesday local time. Three hours later, the U.S. military confirmed that an object appeared to achieve orbit.
The White House called it a "highly provocative act."
On Saturday, North Korea had widened the dates during which it might conduct the launch of its Unha-3 rocket, citing a technical problem. Washington says the launch is a cover for testing technology for missiles that could be used to strike the United States. The previous four attempts all failed.
"It was a surprise in terms of the timing," said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst with the RAND think tank. "They had talked about postponing for a week. To recover so quickly from technical problems suggests they have gotten good at putting together a missile."
North Korea has also conducted two nuclear tests since 2006, deepening international concern over its capabilities, although it is not believed to have mastered how to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
The U.S., Japan and South Korea last week vowed to seek further U.N. Security Council action if the North conducted a launch. It remained to be seen whether Russia and China, the North's main ally, would agree to further sanctions.
Victor Cha, a Korea expert at Georgetown University and a former White House policy director for Asia, said a successful launch was a major national security concern for the United States.
He said there would still be technical hurdles for the North to overcome, particularly in terms of getting a rocket to re-enter the atmosphere, but it would mean that North Korea is able to launch a long-range ballistic missile -- the first rival state to the U.S. do so since the Soviet Union and China.
Rep. Ed Royce, incoming Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the launch showed that new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons program. Royce also criticized U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, calling it a "long-term failure."
"The Obama administration's approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund. We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows," Royce said in a statement.
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