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North Korean satellite 'tumbling out of control,' US officials say

China has offered a rare criticism of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, after the country fired a long-range rocket that has been described by U.S. officials as a weapons test. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

The object that North Korea sent into space on Wednesday appears to be “tumbling out of control” as it orbits the earth, U.S. officials told NBC News.


The officials said that it is indeed some kind of space vehicle, but they still haven’t been able to determine exactly what the satellite is supposed to do.

In a statement, the White House said the rocket launch was a highly provocative act that threatens regional security and violates U.N. resolutions.

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday condemned the launch, calling it a "clear violation" of U.N. resolutions. A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he "deplores" the launch.


North Korea is banned from conducting missile and nuclear tests, under the terms of U.N. sanctions imposed after a series of nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009.

Missile warning systems detected the launch at 7:49 p.m. ET Tuesday. North American Aerospace Defense Command officials said in a statement that the initial indications were that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea and the second stage fell into the Philippine Sea.

North Korea said the launch was an attempt to place a satellite into a pole-to-pole orbit. Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said that the rocket was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launch Center on the secretive country's west coast, and that the Kwangmyongsong weather satellite went into orbit as planned.

KCNA via Reuters

North Korean scientists work as a screen shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket being launched at the satellite control center in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province.

But U.S. officials say the launch was a thinly veiled attempt to test a three-stage ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as the U.S. West Coast.

ANALYSIS: 'Spoiled child' North Korea snubs China

Russia added its voice to the condemnation of the launch and also called on other nations to refrain from further escalating tensions.

"The new rocket launch carried out by North Korea flaunts the opinion of the international community, including calls from the Russian side," it said.

China, North Korea's only major diplomatic ally, said officials had urged Pyongyang not to go ahead with the launch, and expressed regret that it had taken place.

Japan and South Korea voiced concern as well. "The Japanese government regards this launch as an act compromising the peace and stability of the region, including Japan," said Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency meeting of his national security council.

North Korea has successfully launched a long-range rocket, defying a U.N. Security Council Resolution and warnings from the West. On the streets of the country's capital, there were celebrations at the announcement. But internationally, the launch has provoked widespread condemnation and threats of further sanctions. ITN's Angus Walker reports.

The liftoff came as a shock to many South Koreans because they thought it would not take place until after South Korea's presidential election on Dec. 19.

Only a day earlier, North Korea hinted that the launch time might have to be readjusted due to weather or a technical problem.

"It was a surprise in terms of the timing," Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the RAND think tank, told The Associated Press. "They had talked about postponing for a week. To recover so quickly from technical problems suggests they have gotten good at putting together a missile."

This was North Korea's fifth test launch of a long-range rocket or ballistic missile – and the second launch since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came to power in the wake of his father’s death a year ago. Experts say none of the previous attempts was successful, although Pyongyang says otherwise.

The last rocket was launched in April but fell apart shortly after being fired.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that Kim was under pressure to launch a success.

"He knows the stakes are high either way, and it is really what he does next that matters," the official said.

Jim Miklszewski is NBC News' chief Pentagon correspondent. Alan Boyle is NBC News' science editor. This report includes information from NBC News' Julie Yoo in Seoul and Arata Yamamoto in Tokyo, as well as Reuters and The Associated Press.

Ezra Klein reports the breaking news that North Korea has test-fired a long-range rocket in defiance of the international community.

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