SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket on Wednesday, defying international warnings as the regime of Kim Jong Un took a big step forward in its quest to develop a nuclear missile.
The surprising, successful launch of a three-stage rocket -- similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California -- raises the stakes in the international standoff over North Korea's expanding atomic arsenal. As Pyongyang refines its technology, its next step may be conducting its third nuclear test, experts warn.
The U.N. Security Council, which has punished North Korea repeatedly for developing its nuclear program, was to meet behind closed doors Wednesday. The White House called the launch a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security," and even the North's most important ally, China, expressed regret.
The British, French and German ambassadors told reporters as they headed into closed Security Council consultations on North Korea's action that it was a clear violation of a U.N. resolution banning missile launches.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said the council must have "a strong reaction" Wednesday, most likely a statement, followed by a resolution in the coming days if possible.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has said the council's response should be "prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation."
In Pyongyang, however, pride over the scientific advancement outweighed the fear of greater international isolation and punishment. North Korea, though struggling to feed its people, is now one of the few countries to have successfully launched a working satellite into space from its own soil; bitter rival South Korea is not on the list, though it has tried.
"It's really good news," North Korean citizen Jon Il Gwang told The Associated Press as he and scores of other Pyongyang residents poured into the streets after a noon announcement to celebrate the launch by dancing in the snow. "It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter into space."
Wednesday's launch was North Korea's fourth bid since 1998. An April launch failed in the first of three stages, raising doubts among outside observers whether North Korea could fix what was wrong in just eight months, but those doubts were erased Wednesday.
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