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North Korea launches rocket it says is carrying satellite

North Korea had notified UN that it planned to launch a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite.

Few hours before North Korea launched a long-range rocket, a United States Air Force Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft prepares to take off from US Kadena air base in Kadena, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan, 07 February 2016. Picture: EPA/HITOSHI MAESHIRO.

SEOUL/TOKYO - North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday carrying what it has said is a satellite, South Korea's defence ministry said, in defiance of United Nations sanctions.

The US Strategic Command said it had detected what it called a missile entering space, appearing to quash earlier media reports indicating it might have failed during flight.

The rocket was launched at around 9:30am Seoul time in a southward trajectory. Japan's Fuji Television Network showed a streak of light heading into the sky, taken from a camera at China's border with North Korea.

South Korea said it was trying to determine whether the launch had failed.

North Korea, barred under UN sanctions from using ballistic missile technology, had notified UN agencies that it planned to launch a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite, triggering opposition from governments that see it as a long-range missile test.

The UN Security Council was likely to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the launch, diplomats said.

North Korea had initially given a 8-25 February time frame for the launch but changed that to 7-14 February on Saturday.

The United States was tracking the rocket launch and said it did not believe that it posed a threat to the United States or its allies, defence officials said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch "absolutely unacceptable", especially after North Korea had tested a nuclear device last month.

"To launch a missile after conducting a nuclear test goes against the UN resolution. We will respond resolutely, coordinating closely with the international community," he told reporters.

Japan had said that it was ready to shoot down the rocket if it threatened the country, but did not take any action to do so, Japan's NHK reported.

North Korea has said that its most recent nuclear test, its fourth, was a hydrogen bomb. However, the United States and other governments have expressed doubt over that claim.

North Korea is believed to be working on miniaturising a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile, but many experts say it is some time away from perfecting such technology.

It has shown off two versions of a ballistic missile resembling a type that could reach the US West Coast, but there is no evidence the missiles have been tested.

Isolated North Korea says it has a sovereign right to pursue a space programme. It last launched a long-range rocket in December 2012, sending into orbit an object it described as a communications satellite.