South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Tuesday that North Korea has fired "what it claims is a military surveillance satellite in a southwards direction."
North Korea's KCNA news agency confirmed the launch, saying leader Kim Jong Un oversaw it and that the rocket had "accurately put the reconnaissance satellite 'Malligyong-1' on its orbit."
KCNA also reported that the country plans to launch additional satellites in the near future.
The White House on Tuesday strongly condemned North Korea over the launch calling it a "brazen violation" of UN sanctions that could destabilize the region.
Earlier on Tuesday, North Korea had notified Japan that it planned to launch a rocket carrying a military satellite in the direction of the Yellow Sea and East China Sea at some point between November 22 and December 1.
However, the launch came earlier, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's office posting on the social media on Tuesday: "North Korea has launched a suspected ballistic missile."
Pyongyang's previous efforts to put a spy satellite into orbit in May and August both failed, and Seoul, Tokyo and Washington had repeatedly warned Pyongyang not to proceed with another launch, which would violate successive rounds of UN resolutions.
Space launches and ballistic missiles have significant technological overlap, according to experts, and Pyongyang is barred by UN resolutions from any tests involving ballistic technology.
What are North Korea's satellite plans?
North Korea has conducted a record number of weapons tests this year.
Successfully putting a spy satellite into orbit would improve its intelligence-gathering capabilities, particularly over South Korea, and provide crucial data in any military conflict, experts say.
It has earlier made attempts to launch "observation" satellites, two of which appeared to have successfully reached orbit including one in 2016. However, South Korean officials have raised doubts as to whether they are transmitting any signals.
Neither Seoul nor Tokyo could verify whether Tuesday's missile launch had resulted in a satellite actually being placed in orbit or not.
How did North Korea's neighbors react?
The Japanese government immediately urged residents in the southern region of Okinawa to take shelter.
"Missile launch. Missile launch. It appears that the missile was launched from North Korea. Please evacuate inside the building or underground," the Prime Minister Kishida's offices said via X.
Media reports said locals were startled by the loud, late-night public announcement. But the alert was soon lifted after authorities said the projectile had "passed into the Pacific."
North Korea has notified Japan, as the coordinating authority for the International Maritime Organization for those waters, of its plans ahead of all three missile launches this year. But Kishida condemned the missile launch, saying it was a breach of UN resolutions.
"We have already made a strong protest against North Korea, and we have condemned it in the strongest possible terms," Kishida told reporters at his office.
"Even if they call it a satellite, the launch of an item that uses ballistic missile technology is clearly a violation of the relevant United Nations resolutions."
Kishida also said Japan would deal with the issue together with the US, South Korea and other relevant countries.
"This is a significant situation that affects the safety of Japanese people. We will continue to gather information and stay vigilant," Kishida said, adding that he was yet to receive reports of any damage.
How has South Korea reacted?
South Korea has been saying for weeks that Pyongyang was in the "final stages" of preparation for another spy satellite launch.
Its intelligence agency warned earlier this month that Pyongyang's next launch effort was likely to be more successful than its first two efforts, as the North appeared to have received technical advice from Russia, in return for sending at least 10 shipments of weapons for Moscow's war in Ukraine.
Indeed, the launch follows a rare trip to Russia by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in September. He visited a modern space launch center, where Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would assist Pyongyang with building satellites.
Kang Ho-pil, chief director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that Seoul's military would take "necessary measures to guarantee the lives and safety of the people" if the launch went ahead.
The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hinted earlier Tuesday that it would consider suspending a military agreement aimed at de-escalating tensions on the peninsula in response.
According to Choi Gi-il, professor of military studies at Sangji University in Wonju, south-west of Seoul, the fact that Tuesday's launch came hours before North Korea's stated time window underscored two things:
"Pyongyang's confidence in success and [its] intention to maximize [the] surprise factor to the outside world."
How has the United States reacted?
Washington has also been critical of North Korea's relationship with Russia, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken warning earlier this month that military ties between the two countries were "growing and dangerous."
tg,mf/fb,jcg (AFP, Reuters)