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North Korea Launches Long-Range Rocket

People watch a news report at a railway station in Seoul on Feb. 3. North Korea launched a long-range rocket Sunday local time, defying international criticism.

North Korea launched a long-range rocket Sunday morning local time, according to South Korea's defense ministry. Pyongyang had informed the United Nations International Maritime Organization that it planned to fire a rocket into orbit sometime between February 7 and 14.

The South Korean defense ministry says the rocket was fired from North Korea's Sohae launch site. So far, there has been no damage to boats or planes, according to South Korea's Oceans and Fisheries and Land and Transport ministries.

"We condemn today's launch and North Korea's determination to prioritize its missile and nuclear weapons programs over the well-being of its people, whose struggles only intensify with North Korea's diversion of scarce resources to such destabilizing activities," U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in a statement.

She called the launch a "flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions."

The U.S., Japan and South Korea have requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Sunday.

North Korea describes the launch as part of its space program: a rocket carrying an earth observation satellite into orbit. But many governments regard the launch as a concealed long-range ballistic missile test.

The launch follows a Jan. 6 nuclear test that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions. That test — which North Korea called a "hydrogen bomb" test, a claim experts are skeptical of — raised tensions in the region and prompted widespread criticism from the international community.

"But now nearly a month later, disagreement between China and the U.S. has held up a U.N. resolution to condemn the January test," Elise says.

North Korea managed to launch a rocket into orbit in 2012 — after several attempts failed.

At the time, NPR's Scott Neuman explained that the successful test indicated North Korea was closer to possessing a nuclear missile that could threaten large swathes of the world, but didn't mean Pyongyang was all the way there:

"North Korea's successful rocket launch may conjure up visions of nuclear missiles in the hands of one of the planet's least predictable regimes. But building a satellite launch vehicle doesn't directly translate into an ability to rain warheads on distant enemies.

"Pyongyang still faces major obstacles before it can claim to possess reliable, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting its Asian neighborhood and much of the Pacific basin, including Alaska. ... While North Korea might have the reach, it still faces the problem of perfecting a nuclear warhead — a much larger obstacle than simply exploding a nuclear device."

But while the engineering challenges are substantial, several experts told NPR it was a mistake to underestimate the potential threat posed by North Korean technology.

"Relying on them to fail is not a great plan," defense expert Thomas Donnelly told NPR in in 2012. "They are trodding a path that many nations have trod before."

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