This post has been updated. See the note below.
BEIJING -- North Korea launched a three-stage rocket from a missile base near the west coast city of Sinuiju today, claiming that it was carrying a weather satellite of purely civilian use. [Updated 4:35 p.m. Thursday, April 12: But U.S. officials said the rocket broke apart shortly after launch.]
Its projected trajectory was almost due south on a course 150 miles east of Shanghai. The second stage of the rock was to splash down east of the Philippines, which prompted Manila to cancel northbound flights as a precaution.
The rocket, named Unha-3 and emblazoned with a North Korean flag, was based on the same technology as the long-range Taepodong missile that the country is developing, which has triggered accusations that North Korea is actually conducting a weapons test.
Since 1998, Pyongyang has conducted three previous long-range launches but has not succeeded in sending a satellite into orbit, although it has claimed otherwise.
Today’s launch will be closely analyzed to determine how far North Korea has advanced its technological prowess.
"If they actually are successful, they can in theory deliver a weapon with a range sufficient to reach the United States," said Scott Snyder, an analyst from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The launch occurred despite warnings from the United States, as well as China and Russia.
“We don't really care about the opinions from the outside. This is critical in order to develop our national economy,” Paek Chang Ho, head of the satellite control center at the Korean Committee for Space Technology, had told reporters who were invited to North Korea for the occasion.
Paek said that a weather satellite had been installed on the rocket as part of North Korea’s “peaceful space program,” but officials of the U.S. and other countries fear that North Korea’s missile program masks an effort to develop a delivery system for a nuclear weapon.
The rocket launch was the centerpiece of celebrations taking place this week to mark the centennial of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, April 15, 1912 — the same day, North Koreans sometimes note with irony, as the sinking of the Titanic.
The launch also served as a distraction from the despair in one of the world’s hungriest nations. One-third of North Korean children are reported to be permanently stunted because of chronic malnutrition. North Korea recently had to lower the minimum height requirement for soldiers to 4 feet, 9 inches.
The Defense Ministry in rival South Korea released figures this week saying that North Korea could afford to feed its population for a year with the money it is spending on the missile launch.
North Korea struck a deal Feb. 29 to suspend its weapons program in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States, but the U.S. had said the aid would not be delivered if North Korea went ahead with the launch.
The rapid collapse of the deal raises the possibility of a rift in the leadership between those who would like to end North Korea’s pariah status and hard-liners in the military.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel guard a Patriot air defense system that was on standby to respond to a North Korean long-range missile launch. Credit: Hitoshi Maeshiro / EPA