North Korea defies warnings, launches long-range rocket

North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket at the Tongchang-ri launching site, near the country’s northwestern border with China, in 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Sunday (its time) defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket that the United Nations and others call a cover for a banned test of technology for a missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.

The launch, which South Korean officials confirmed about two hours after an eight-day launch window opened Sunday morning, follows North Korea’s widely disputed claim last month to have tested a hydrogen bomb. It will be considered a further provocation by Washington and its allies and likely draw more sanctions and condemnation from the United Nations.

In a statement released by United States Pacific Command at Camp Smith after the launch:

U.S. Department of Defense systems detected and tracked today what we assess was a North Korean missile launch into space at 2:29 p.m. HST.

At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to the United States or its allies.

U.S. Pacific Command’s joint military forces remain vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and are fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies to maintain security in the region.

North Korean rocket and nuclear tests are seen as crucial steps toward the North’s ultimate goal of a nuclear armed long-range missile arsenal. North Korea says its nuclear and missile programs are necessary to defend itself against what it calls decades of U.S. hostility.

Leader Kim Jong Un has overseen two of the North’s four nuclear tests and three long-range rocket tests since taking over after the death of his father, dictator Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. North Korea says its rocket launches are satellite missions, but the U.S., South Korea and others say they are a covert test of ballistic missile technology. The U.N. Security Council prohibits North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity.

The Jan. 6 nuclear test has led to another push in the U.N. to tighten sanctions. North Korea in 2013 also did a nuclear test and then unnerved the international community by orchestrating an escalating campaign of bombast, including threats to fire nuclear missiles at the U.S. and Seoul.

The Korean border is the world’s most heavily armed and the rivals’ navies occasionally trade gunfire near a disputed boundary in the Yellow Sea.

North Korea has spent decades trying to develop operational nuclear weapons.

It is thought to have a small arsenal of atomic bombs and an impressive array of short- and medium-range missiles. But it has yet to demonstrate that it can produce nuclear bombs small enough to place on a missile, or missiles that can reliably deliver their bombs to faraway targets.

Still, the North’s nuclear tests and steadily improving long-range rocket launches push its nuclear aims further along.

North Korea has said that plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex are in operation.

Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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