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North Korea successfully launches long-range rocket

North Korea's rocket splintered and crashed into the sea minutes after it was launched in April. Photo:

As the Unha 3 rocket rose into the bitterly cold air above the launch site in the north west of the world's most secretive state, the political atmosphere in this crucial region heated up.

Japan and the UK are consulting the UN. There could be a meeting of the Security Council today. The Foreign Secretary William Hague is summoning the North Korean ambassador to Britain and has issued a statement saying that the launch was a "clear violation of UN Security resolutions 1718 and 1874...".

The UK is one of the few countries in the West with normal diplomatic relations with North Korea. The US had promised "swift and credible" action if the launch went ahead. South Korea has already held a press conference allowing officials to quickly condemn the launch.

This is the first successful launch of a three stage rocket carried out by North Korea. Back in April we were sitting in a special media conference room in Pyongyang watching two stone faced officials shift and squirm in their seats as news filtered through that the planned launch of a satellite had gone badly wrong.

They said nothing and crept away, clearly embarrassed. The rocket had exploded seconds into the flight. For the first time the regime remarkably admitted that "the satellite failed to enter orbit".

Previous failures have been airbrushed out of North Korean history. The leadership had planned that April blast off to be the highlight of a week of celebrations around the 100th birth anniversary of Kim il Sung, the first leader of the world's only Communist dynasty.

For his grandson, if as the North is claiming, the satellite did make it into orbit then his leadership will also be boosted. The launch comes a week ahead of the South Korean presidential election and just a few days from the death of leader Kim Jong il, who died on 17 December 2011. The 12/12/12 date will also be seen as auspicious.

Why the regional and international outrage? The suspicion is that that this is not the launch of a 'weather satellite', as the North insists. Instead Pyongyang is accused of testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The fear being that eventually the North may have the means to fire a rocket carrying a nuclear war head at the west coast of the US.

In April I spoke to James Oberg, a former NASA scientist, who like me was in North Korea to cover the earlier rocket launch this year. According to James Oberg the rocket technology was old, what NASA had been using in the 1960s. He said the rocket couldn't lift much, describing the payload capability as "the terrifying golf ball of death" meaning that's about all the weight it could carry in the nose cone.

What experts will be looking at today is whether the nose cone, a potential war head, was able to re-enter the atmosphere without being burnt up. That's the technology you need to successfully launch an ICBM. Put very simply, what James Oberg was saying, is what goes up must come down in one piece when it comes to nuclear warfare.

The race will now be on, using submarines and special forces divers from the US Navy, to find the bits of the rocket which landed in the seas off South Korea and the Philippines. What's left of the launch could offer important clues as to whether North Korea is actually a threat to the world, or not.