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North Korea Launches Long-Range Rocket

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea appears to have carried out the successful launch of a long-range rocket on Wednesday, United States officials confirm.

The move comes as a surprise to the international community, which has consistently called on North Korea to abandon its efforts.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the North Koreans had indicated they were grappling with "technical uncertainties" that forced them to extend the launch window to Dec. 29.

The secretive regime insists its efforts are part of a peaceful space program intended to place a satellite into orbit.  But the U.S. and key Asian allies believe it is a thinly disguised attempt to test an intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at furthering development of the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range rocket that could one day reach the U.S.

National Security Council spokesman Tom Vietor called the launch a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security."

"The action is yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior," read the National Security Council statement. "The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and is fully committed to the security of allies in the region."

In recent weeks even China, North Korean's only remaining ally, sent a high level delegation into Pyongyang to convey a message of constraint.  On Wednesday, China expressed "regret" over the incident.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) acknowledged the launch initiated at 9:49 a.m. local time and followed its intended trajectory, traveling south between Korea and Japan.

"At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America," said NORAD.

Japan's emergency alert system -- M-NET -- recorded the rocket's flight path directly over Okinawa just after 10:00 a.m.  Officials say they have located three points of debris: One in South Korea's Yellow Sea, a second location further down the country's west coast and the third point 180 miles north of the Philippines.

A South Korean military official confirmed that one of their three warships, equipped with the Aegis radar system, detected the launch.  The first stage fell just below Byeonsanbando, southwest of the Korean peninsula, exactly where it was supposed to, according to the official.

The type of rocket is believed to be the Taepodong 2 missile.  The North Koreans refer to it as the Unha-3, which in Korean translates as "Galaxy-3."  The same type of missile had been previously tested three times -- in 2006, 2009 and 2012.  Each time, the rocket failed soon after launch.

The rocket is believed to have the capacity to travel a minimum of 3,400 miles.  That puts it well within striking range of the western U.S.

The U.S. had mobilized four warships in the Asia-Pacific region to monitor the launch.  The guided missile destroyers the USS John S. McCain, the USS Benfold and the USS Fitzgerald joined the guided missile cruiser the USS Shiloh to "reassure allies in the region" according to officials.

South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak called an emergency security meeting in response.  The timing is particularly sensitive for this country which is still officially at war with North Korea.

In just one week, South Korea holds key elections and will choose a new president.  North Korea's successful launch could potentially sway voters favoring either a harsher line or a return to the "Sunshine Policy" of past administrations.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio