SEOUL/TOKYO, Dec 12 (Reuters) - North Korea successfully launched a rocket on Wednesday, boosting the credentials of its new leader and stepping up the threat the isolated and impoverished state poses to its opponents.
The rocket, which North Korea says was designed to put a weather satellite into orbit, has been labelled by the United States, South Korea and Japan as a test of technology that could one day deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting targets as far as the continental the United States.
"The satellite has entered the planned orbit," North Korea's state news agency KCNA said.
North Korea followed what it said was a similar successful launch in 2009 with a nuclear test that prompted the United Nations Security Council to stiffen sanctions against Pyongyang that it originally imposed in 2006 after the North's first nuclear test.
The state is banned from developing nuclear and missile-related technology under U.N. resolutions, although Kim Jong-un, the youthful head of state who took power a year ago, is believed to have continued the state's "military first" programmes put into place by his deceased father Kim Jong-il.
After Wednesday's launch, which saw the second stage of the rocket splash down in seas off the Philippines as planned, Japan's U.N. envoy called for a Security Council meeting. However, diplomats say further tough sanctions are unlikely to be agreed at the body as China, the North's only major ally, will opppose them.
The rocket was launched just before 10 a.m. Korea time (01000 GMT), according to defence officials in South Korea and Japan, and easily surpassed a failed April launch that flew for less than two minutes.
There was no independent confirmation it had put a satellite into orbit.
Japan's likely next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who is leading in opinion polls ahead of an election on Dec. 16 and who made his name as a North Korea hawk, called on the United Nations to adopt a resolution "strongly criticising" Pyongyang.
There was no immediate official reaction from Washington, South Korea's major military backer, or from China.
China had expressed "deep concern" over the launch which was announced a day after a visit by a top politburo member to Pyongyang when he met Kim Jong-un.
On Wednesday, China's state news agency Xinhua said North Korea had the "right to conduct peaceful exploration of outer space."
But it added: "Pyongyang should also abide by relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 1874, which demands (North Korea) not to conduct 'any launch using ballistic missile technology' and urges it to 'suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme.'"
U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who heads the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, quickly condemned the launch and called for tougher sanctions.
"It is clear that Pyongyang is moving ever closer towards its ultimate goal of producing a nuclear ballistic missile in order to threaten not only our allies in the Asia-Pacific region but the U.S. as well," she said.
A senior adviser to South Korea's president said last week it was unlikely that there would be a meaningful set of sanctions agreed at the United Nations but that Seoul would expect its allies to tighten sanctions unilaterally.
A YEAR ON FOR THE THIRD KIM
Kim Jong-un, believed to be 29 years old, took office after his father died on Dec. 17 last year and experts believe that Wednesday's launch was intended to commemorate the first anniversary of the death.
The April launch was timed for the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and the grandfather of its current ruler.
"This is a considerable boost in establishing the rule of Kim Jong-un," said Cho Min, an expert at the Korea Institute of National Unification.
There have been few indications the secretive and impoverished state, where the United Nations estimates a third of the population is malnourished, has made any advances in opening up economically over the past year.
North Korea remains reliant on minerals exports to China and remittances from tens of thousands of its people working on labour projects overseas.
The 22 million population often needs handouts from defectors who have escaped to South Korea in order to afford basic medicines.
Given the puny size of its economy - per capita income is less than $2,000 a year - one of the few ways that North Korea can attract world attention is by emphasising its military threat.
Pyongyang wants the United States to resume aid and to recognise it diplomatically, although the April launch scuppered a planned food deal.
It is believed to be some years away from developing a functioning nuclear warhead and to have enough plutonium for around half a dozen nuclear bombs, according to nuclear experts.
The North has also been enriching uranium which would give it a second path to nuclear weapons as it sits on vast natural uranium reserves.
It says that its development is part of a civil nuclear programme, but has also boasted of it being a "nuclear weapons power".