North Korea has successfully launched a long-range rocket and appears to have put "an object" into orbit, NORAD officials said today.
North American Aerospace Defense Command officials said U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean missile at 7:49 p.m. ET.
The first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea, the officials said.
Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit, NORAD said. At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.
North Korea insists the launch of the long-range Unha-3 rocket is simply part of a peaceful space program, but the U.S. and key Asian allies believe it is a disguised attempt to test a long range ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead and one day, with development, reach the United States.
It is the country's fourth attempt to launch a long-range missile, and by far its most successful.
In lanuches in 1998 and in 2009 they succeed in separating the second stage. In 2006 and in April 2012 both launch attempts failed only minutes after liftoff.
If the North Koreans succeed in separating the third stage, the rocket could reach as far as Los Angeles.
A South Korean military official confirmed that one of their three warships equipped with Aegis radar system detected the launch. The first stage fell just below Byunsan, southwest of the Korean peninsula, exactly where it was supposed to, according to the official.
Japanese chief government spokesman Osamu Fujimura said the launch occurred at 9:49 a.m. and the rocket passed over Okinawa at 10:01 am.
The secretive regime had been saying it would launch the rocket, but over the weekend announced plans of a possible delay due to "unspecified reasons."
Official state media blamed the delay on a technical glitch. A statement from the Korean Committee of Space Technology claimed Monday that scientists and technicians "found a technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite."
Satellite images also revealed that a new third-stage booster was delivered to the launch pad on Saturday.
The United States has mobilized four warships in the Asia-Pacific region to monitor and possibly shoot down the launch. The guided missile destroyer the USS John S. McCain and the guided missile cruiser the USS Shiloh join the USS Benfold and USS Fitzgerald, also guided missile destroyers, to "reassure allies in the region" according to officials.
Though some analysts in South Korea expressed doubts that a launch would actually take place this year, citing poor weather in addition to the technical challenges, South Korea had upped its defense level to "Watchcon 2," which is issued when there is a possible viable threat to the nation. South Korea usually occupies a "Watchcon 3" status due to the official state of war with the North.
North Korea's actions are timely as many notable events overlap this month. Dec. 17 marks the one year anniversary of the country's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's death. Analysts believe his son and successor, Kim Jong-Un, is under pressure to show the world he is intent on continuing his father's "Military First" policy and demonstrate a show of strength.
The planned rocket launch is also seen as a political statement. It may coincide with the South Korean presidential election, scheduled for Dec. 19. For presidential candidate Park Geun-hye in particular, North Korea holds particular meaning. Her father, Park Chung-hee, served as the South Korean president for 16 years. He was the target of multiple assassination attempts by North Korea. One of those effort killed his wife, Chung-hee's mother. Park took over her mother's duties as first lady until her father was assassinated by the chief of security in 1979.
Park re-emerged in 1997 as an active politician. She is the first female candidate to be seriously considered for president. Her party, the Saenuridang, is a traditionally conservative group that adapts a stricter policy towards North Korea than her opponent, Moon Jae-in. As head of the Democratic United Party, he champions a more lenient approach to the South's belligerent neighbor.