SEOUL: North Korea sparked international condemnation after the surprise launch of a rocket designed to show the secretive communist country's military strength and advances in aerospace technology.
Pyongyang confirmed it had launched a long-range rocket on Wednesday after it was detected by a US monitoring agency. It said it had succeeded in its mission of placing a satellite in orbit, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The US, South Korea and Japan, said the launch was a disguised ballistic missile test that violated United Nations resolutions triggered by North Korea's two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Missile controversy... a North Korean soldier stands guard in front of an Unha-3 rocket at Tangachai -ri space centre in April. Photo: AFP
The US condemned the ''highly provocative'' launch warning it would destabilise the region and further isolate Pyongyang. The launch marks ''yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behaviour'', White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
The first stage of the rocket fell into the Yellow Sea while the second stage splashed down in the Philippine Sea, adding to jitters in a region already grappling with territorial disputes in the South and East China seas.
Australia pledged to protest directly to the North Korean government. Labelling the launch a ''provocative and irresponsible act,'' the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, issued a statement unequivocally condemning the action, which they said threatened regional stability.
''We call on the North Korean government to abide by UN Security Council resolutions, stop its provocations, improve the wellbeing of its people, and engage constructively with the international community,'' the statement said. . ''Australia will be expressing its concerns directly to the North Korean government.''
The launch came after earlier signs suggested that North Korea might postpone the test. Two days earlier the government extended its time frame for the launch by one week to December 10-29, citing a ''technical deficiency'', and the South Korean broadcaster YTN said on Tuesday that satellite photos indicated the regime was taking apart the three-stage rocket.
Pyongyang's surprise move a week before South Korea's presidential election spurred opposition candidate Moon Jae-in to say the outgoing government had poor intelligence.
Japan, also days away from federal elections, said it plans to seek a new UN resolution.
A senior analyst at International Crisis Group in Seoul, Daniel Pinkston, said that after investing in missile technology for decades North Korea ''will try to exploit all the propaganda value''.
The launch also shows leader Kim Jong-un's willingness to ignore pressure, including from China, North Korea's biggest ally, in order to make up for a failed rocket test in April.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement deploring the launch.
''It is all the more regrettable because it defies the unified and strong call from the international community,'' Mr Ban's office said.
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.
North Korea has twice detonated an atomic bomb, and Kim has shown no readiness to respond to calls from the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to return to six-party talks aimed at getting the regime to abandon its nuclear program.
Construction of a new light-water reactor at its Yongbyon site continues and work on the exterior has been ''largely completed'', the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, said last month.
The Obama administration has strengthened the US presence throughout the region, stepping up port calls and broadening military co-operation.
The US ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich said North Korea's actions were designed to rattle other nations in the region.
''We used to say this to [the late] Kim Jong-il and now we have been very clear with Kim Jong-un. Whenever nations in this region do things that are intended to provoke other nations they are playing with fire,'' he said.
Bloomberg, agencies with Bianca Hall