SEOUL, South Korea -North Korea launched what was believed to be a multistage rocket Sunday, ending weeks of speculation about the regime's efforts to expand its ability to deliver nuclear weapons.
The North Korean news agency announced that a rocket was launched about 11:30 a.m. The U.S. State Department, the South Korean president's office and Japanese media reports confirmed the launch.
The rocket reportedly crossed Japanese airspace before plunging into the Pacific Ocean, according to news reports from Japan. Japanese officials apparently did not attempt to shoot down the rocket, as they had threatened to do.
The launch prompted Japan to request an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.
Spokesman Yutaka Arima says Japan's United Nations mission asked for a meeting of the 15-nation council Sunday.
The request must be approved by Mexico's mission to the U.N., which holds the council presidency this month.
U.N. diplomats are discussing ways to affirm existing sanctions on North Korea against its nuclear program and long-range missile tests.
North Korea had said it planned to put a communications satellite into space. But many analysts predicted that the launch would actually be a test of the regime's ability to use the three-stage Taepodong-2 to deliver a warhead.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted government officials in Seoul as saying that the rocket carried a satellite. That report was not immediately confirmed.
The rocket is estimated to have a range of more than 4,000 miles. Some analysts say that, with a light payload, it could reach the Western U.S.
On Sunday morning, the rogue state had appeared to activate its rocket tracking radar system just minutes before the start of the 11 a.m.-to-4 p.m. window given for the launch, according to a South Korean news agency.
East Asia had been on high alert for days as the U.S., Japan and South Korea continued to monitor North Korea. All three nations dispatched ships armed with missile interceptors to the ocean waters around the Korean peninsula.
Jittery military officials in Tokyo acknowledged that they had twice incorrectly announced Saturday that North Korea had launched its rocket.
An embarrassed Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada called it "inexcusable" that two false alarms hours apart by the nation's Self Defense Forces had announced that the rocket had lifted off.
The ministry retracted both announcements moments later, blaming them on computer and communications glitches, according to a report in the Japan Times.
In Seoul, residents enjoyed a quiet spring day on Sunday after anti-North Korean protests that were held on Saturday, in which more than 100 activists burned a miniature model of a Taepodong-2 missile and clashed with police, according to South Korean media reports.
The rocket launch is intended to precede a gathering April 9 of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, in which the legislative body would rubber-stamp leader Kim Jong Il's hold on power following elections last month.
In 1998, North Korea used what officials claimed was a satellite launch to herald Kim's ascension to power. The satellite was intended to transmit back to earth the "Song of General Kim Jong Il" and Morse code signals for "Juche," the regime's political ideology. But analysts never detected a satellite and believe that the last stage failed.
Analysts say that Kim was banking on a successful launch to rally public support, despite ongoing hardships in the isolated society, including poverty and widespread food shortages.