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North Korean satellite orbiting normally, South Korean officials say

700_1bfa89993558c5e961a9884ab779af5bA SATELLITE North Korea launched aboard a long-range rocket is orbiting normally, South Korean officials say, following a defiant liftoff that drew a wave of international condemnation.

Washington and its allies are pushing for punishment over the launch they say is nothing but a test of banned ballistic missile technology. US officials said the “object” has started to tumble, yesterday.

The 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 UN Security Council, which has punished North Korea repeatedly for developing its nuclear program, condemned Wednesday’s launch and said it will urgently consider “an appropriate response”.

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.

In Pyongyang, however, pride over the scientific advancement outweighed the fear of greater international isolation and punishment. North Koreans clinked beer mugs and danced in the streets to celebrate.

“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.”

South Korea’s Defence Ministry said on Thursday the satellite is orbiting normally at a speed of 7.6 kilometres per second, though it’s not known what mission it is performing. North Korean space officials say the satellite would be used to study crops and weather patterns.

Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said it usually takes about two weeks to determine whether a satellite works successfully after liftoff. He cited data from the North American Aerospace Defence Command.

The Unha rocket, Korean for “galaxy”, blasted off from a launch pad northwest of Pyongyang just three days after North Korea indicated that technical problems might delay the launch.

South Korean navy ships found what appears to be debris from the first stage rocket at Yellow Sea and were trying to retrieve them on Thursday, defence officials said. The debris is believed to be a fuel container of the first stage rocket.

The officials said South Korea has no plans to return it to North Korea because the launch violated UN council resolutions.

The North American Aerospace Defence Command confirmed that “initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit”.

The launch could leave Pyongyang even more isolated and cut off from much-needed aid and trade.

The UN imposed two rounds of sanctions following nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and ordered the North not to conduct any launches using ballistic missile technology. Pyongyang maintains its right to develop a civilian space program, saying the satellite will send back crucial scientific data.

However, China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday any UN reaction should be “prudent”, after Beijing came under pressure to act on its rogue ally.

China believes any response “should be prudent, appropriate and conducive to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and avoid the escalation of the situation”, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing.

“We express regret at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s launch in spite of the extensive concerns of the international community,” Hong said, using North Korea’s formal name and reiterating Beijing’s stance following the Wednesday launch.

He said Pyongyang should observe “relevant” resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, adding: “We hope relevant parties will keep calm and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.”

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