North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Wednesday in defiance of its critics abroad — and claimed that the mission successfully put a satellite in orbit.
U.S. officials told NBC News that it appeared the North Koreans had indeed launched an object, possibly a satellite, into space.
In a statement, the White House said the rocket launch was a highly provocative act that threatens regional security and violates U.N. resolutions. A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he "deplores" the launch.
Ban said it was "all the more regrettable because it defies the unified and strong call from the international community." He added that he was "in close touch with the government concerned."
Missile warning systems detected the launch at 7:49 p.m. ET, and initial reports indicate that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was predicted to fall into the Philippine Sea, according to a statement issued by the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said earlier that the rocket was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launch Center on the secretive country's west coast, and said that the Kwangmyongsong weather satellite went into orbit as planned.
North Korea said Wednesday's launch was an attempt to place a satellite into orbit. But U.S. officials say it is a thinly veiled attempt to test a three-stage ballistic missile that would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as the West Coast of the United States.
Russia added its voice to the condemnation of the launch and also called on other nations to refrain from further escalating tensions.
"The new rocket launch carried out by North Korea flaunts the opinion of the international community, including calls from the Russian side," it said.
China, North Korea's only major diplomatic ally, had urged it not to go ahead with the launch, and expressed regret on Wednesday that it had taken place.
This is North Korea's fifth test launch of a long-range rocket or ballistic missile. U.S. officials consider the four previous launches failures. The last rocket was launched in April, but it fell apart shortly after being fired.
Initial word of the launch came from media outlets in Seoul and Tokyo, and a spokesman at South Korea's Defense Ministry confirmed to NBC News that the launch had taken place. Later, a Defense Ministry representative told reporters that the launch "looked successful, but whether it has been really successful needs more time to determine."
After the launch, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak responded by calling an emergency security meeting. The liftoff came as a shock to many South Koreans because they thought it would not take place until after South Korea's presidential election on Dec. 19. The Defense Ministry said the border between North and South was calm and stable as usual.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Osamu Fujimura, said North Korea's rocket flew over Okinawa at 10:01 a.m. local time. He could not confirm whether any debris fell on Japanese territory. "The Japanese government regards this launch as an act compromising the peace and stability of the region, including Japan," Fujimura said.
Fujimura said the launch was "completely unacceptable," but he reassured the public that the Japanese government was doing everything possible to ensure national security. "Please go about your daily lives calmly," he said during a briefing.
Japan's NHK television network reported that the rocket's second stage crashed into the sea off the coast of the Philippines as planned, minutes after passing over Okinawa. After separating from the second stage, the rocket's third stage was designed to carry its payload all the way to orbit.
'Stakes are high'
North Korea says the rocket launch is aimed purely at putting its Kwangmyongsong satellite into a pole-to-pole orbit. But critics fear that the mission's true purpose is to test technologies for sending a nuclear warhead to targets as far away as the U.S. West Coast.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that Washington noted the launch and was monitoring the situation. Earlier this month, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said "a North Korean 'satellite' launch would be a highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region." She said such a launch would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
North Korea is banned from conducting missile and nuclear tests, under the terms of U.N. sanctions imposed after a series of nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009.
Wednesday's launch follows up on an attempt in April that ended in failure just minutes after liftoff.
This is the second North Korean test launch since President Kim Jong-un came to power following his father's death a year ago.
U.S. official told NBC News that Kim is under pressure to launch a success.
"He knows the stakes are high either way, and it is really what he does next that matters," the official said.
This report includes information from NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski, Julie Yoo in Seoul and Arata Yamamoto in Tokyo, as well as Reuters and The Associated Press.