SEOUL, Dec. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea successfully carried out a surprise long-range rocket launch Wednesday, South Korean officials said, rattling regional security and beyond, and fully demonstrating it is perfecting capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons as far as the mainland United States.
The Unha-3 rocket blasted off from the Dongchang-ri site in the North's northwest at 9:49 a.m., officials said. Its first stage fell in the Yellow Sea off South Korea's west coast, and the second stage landed in waters near the Philippines, they said.
The landings happened as Pyongyang announced, and officials said the launch was a success.
The rocket is estimated to have a range of more than 13,000 kilometers, a breakthrough distance long enough to put all of the United States within striking range, a South Korean military source said, citing rocket experts.
Experts drew the range estimate based on the fact that the rocket's first stage had an engine "burn-out" time of 156 seconds, 26 seconds longer than when the North fired the same type of rocket in April, the source said on condition of anonymity.
Experts had previously warned the rocket could have a range of some 10,000 kilometers, which means it could fly as far as Los Angeles. They say it is meaningless to differentiate between a rocket and a missile because they are basically the same and are characterized depending on their payloads.
North Korea also hailed the launch as a "complete success."
"The second version of satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 successfully lifted off from the Sohae Space Center by carrier rocket Unha-3 on Wednesday," the official Korean Central News Agency said. "The satellite entered its preset orbit."
The launch came as a total surprise.
Pyongyang had originally set a 13-day launch window starting Monday, but extended it by a week until Dec. 29 after discovering technical problems with the rocket. Officials in Seoul said Tuesday the North had taken the rocket off the launch pad for repair, leading many to believe it would take some time to fix the problems.
The launch came a week before North Korea marks the first anniversary of the death of late leader Kim Jong-il, father of current leader Kim Jong-un. It also came ahead of South Korea's Dec. 19 presidential election, spurring speculation Pyongyang is attempting to sway the tight race for Seoul's top office.
North Korea has claimed the planned launch is aimed at putting a satellite into orbit.
But South Korea, the United States, China and other countries have denounced it as a disguised ballistic missile test and a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from any ballistic activity because it can be used to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Wednesday's firing was the North's fifth launch of a long-range rocket or missile since the first test in 1998. The other three launches came in 2006, 2009 and April this year. The April launch ended in failure as the rocket exploded soon after takeoff.
North Korea's missile development has long been a top security concern in the region and beyond, along with its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang test blasted nuclear devices twice, first in 2006 and the other in 2009, though it is unclear whether the country has mastered the technology to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop ballistic missiles.
South Korea said it "strongly condemns" the firing as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions while warning that the communist nation will have to "take full responsibility" for the violation and face deeper isolation from the international community.
"North Korea's launch this time will only result in the deepening of its isolation from the international community," Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said, reading a government statement issued after an emergency National Security Council meeting.
"The government yet again urges North Korea to divert the enormous financial resources wasted on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles to addressing the pressing issue of taking care of the everyday lives of its citizens," Kim said.
The White House denounced the launch as a "highly provocative act" and warned of "consequences."
"North Korea's launch today - using ballistic missile technology despite express prohibitions by United Nations Security Council resolutions - is a highly provocative act that threatens regional security," NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"This action is yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior," Vietor said. "The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and fully committed to the security of our allies in the region."
He called for the international community to "work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences."
The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to convene an emergency session on Wednesday morning.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplored the North's launch, expressing concern that it could have a negative impact on peace and security in Northeast Asia.
"The Secretary-General deplores the rocket launch. ... It is a clear violation of Security Council resolution 1874, in which the Council demanded that the DPRK not conduct any launch using ballistic missile technology," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.