North Koreans Celebrate Launch of Long-Range Rocket

North Korean youths dance in front of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate a rocket launch on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. North Korea appeared to successfully fire a long-range rocket Wednesday.
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Still, North Korea under new leader Kim has vowed to continue pursuing its nuclear ambitions unless Washington scraps what Pyongyang calls a hostile policy.

The timing of the rocket test seems full of symbolism.

It may have been timed to commemorate the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17 death and the close of his son's first year as supreme leader. It also closely aligns with next week's South Korean presidential election, and parliamentary elections in Japan, another long-time enemy nation. President Barack Obama is due to be inaugurated for his second term next month.

Politically, it also sends a powerful message to the world.

Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Pyongyang is thought to have a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs, but experts believe it lacks the ability to make a warhead small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the United States.

North Korea also has spent decades trying to perfect a multistage, long-range rocket capable of carrying such a device. Since ballistic missiles share similar bodies, engines and other technology to rockets used in satellite launches, experts see the North's rocket launches as a thinly veiled cover for its missile program, despite Pyongyang's insistence that it is a peaceful satellite program.

There were four previous attempts at a long-range launch, dating back to 1998 when Pyongyang sent a rocket hurtling over Japan.

The success of this launch "allows the North Koreans to determine what kind of delivery vehicle they could use for a potential nuclear warhead," said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a weapons expert and intelligence analyst.

David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said North Korea showed some technical capability getting the rockets stages to work Wednesday.

"Politically, however, it will certainly have an impact on the way other countries view North Korea," Wright said.

Wednesday's launch, like the one in April, came from a site on the west coast, in the village of Tongchang-ri, about 56 kilometers (35 miles) from the Chinese border city of Dandong. The site is 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the North's main Yongbyon nuclear complex, and is said to have better roads and facilities than previous sites and to allow a southerly flight path meant to keep the rocket from flying over other countries.

The launch, which comes amid high tensions between the rival Koreas, also puts the North a step ahead of South Korea in the race to space. Seoul recently canceled its own attempt to launch its first satellite from its own territory, citing technical problems. Two previous attempts by Seoul in 2009 and 2010 failed.

"It's really good news," Jon Il Gwang, a Pyongyang resident, told the AP. "It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter space. I think our country should continue launching man-made satellites in the future in order to further advance the position of our country as a science and technology power."

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Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Hyung-jin Kim and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Peter Enav in Taipei, Taiwan, Matthew Pennington and Noel Waghorn in Washington, and Mari Yamaguchi and Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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