SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea appeared to have put what it said was a satellite into orbit on Wednesday, a boost for the country's young leader, Kim Jong-un, in his struggle to be hailed at home as a worthy successor to his father and to be regarded as a serious rival by the United States and its allies in the region.
With the surprise launching on Wednesday morning of a rocket that flew beyond the Philippines and apparently put an object into orbit, North Korea showed that after a series of failures it was clearing key technical hurdles toward mastering the technology needed to build an intercontinental ballistic missile, analysts said.
The launching prompted the United States and its two main Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to demand further United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But it was far from clear how far China, the North's main ally, might be prepared to go in joining that push.
China said that it "regrets" the launching, the first time it has used that word in the context of the North's rocket program. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, also said that North Korea's right to a peaceful space program was "subject to limitations by relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions," somewhat tougher language than China has used on that subject in the past.
"North Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has the obligation to abide by relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council," Mr. Hong said at a regular briefing in Beijing. But he declined to say whether North Korea had lived up to that obligation or whether China had received advance notice that the launching would happen Wednesday.
In North Korea, the apparent success gave Mr. Kim a propaganda boon. After state television announced the "important news" that the Unha-3 rocket had put the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, government vehicles with loudspeakers rolled through the streets of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, blaring the news, according to the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency. The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, reported dancing in the streets.
"Suddenly, the whole country is engulfed with happiness and the people endlessly inspired," the state-run news agency K.C.N.A. reported, attributing the success to Mr. Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il, whose main legacy of missile and nuclear programs his son has tried to bolster to solidify his own hereditary rule.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, said early Wednesday that it had detected the launching and tracked the rocket as its first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the Philippine Sea. "Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," it said.
All four previous efforts by North Korea to put a satellite into orbit failed, according to American officials, though the country insisted that two of them succeeded, in 1998 and then in 2009.
If the North indeed sent a satellite into orbit, it would give Mr. Kim bragging rights over the government of President Lee Myung-bak in South Korea, which has twice failed to do so. South Korea's apparent failure to predict the timing of the North's launching became a key campaign issues ahead of the South's Dec. 19 presidential election, with the two main candidates arguing over who was better qualified to deal with the North's threats.
For President Obama, the launching deepened the complexity of dealing with the new North Korean government, after four years in which promises of engagement, then threats of deeper sanctions, have done nothing to modify the country's behavior. A statement from the White House by Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman, called the launch a "a highly provocative act that threatens regional security, directly violates United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, contravenes North Korea's international obligations, and undermines the global nonproliferation regime."
The North Korean rocket was carrying a 220-pound satellite, perhaps one-tenth the weight of a typical nuclear warhead, said Baek Seung-joo, an expert on the North's military at the state-financed Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. Still, he said, by successfully launching a multistage rocket, "North Korea demonstrated some long-range capabilities."
Although the launching was driven partly by domestic considerations, analysts said it carried far-reaching foreign relations implications, coming as leaders in Washington and Beijing -- as well as those soon to be chosen in Tokyo and Seoul -- try to form a new way of coping with North Korea after two decades of largely fruitless efforts to end its nuclear and missile ambitions.
In Seoul, Foreign Minister Kim Sung- hwan called the rocket "a challenge and threat to peace in the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the world," and vowed that North Korea would be "sternly held responsible" for violating United Nations resolutions that ban the country from launching such rockets because the technology is similar to that used to launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura of Japan said Tokyo "cannot tolerate" the provocation. Japan requested that the United Nations convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss new penalties.
The launching came four days before lower house elections in Japan, where right-wing leaders have been gaining political leverage, partly because of North Korean threats.
In Seoul, which lived in the shadow of the North's artillery long before the North ever conducted a nuclear test, there is less concern about long-range North Korean missiles than in Japan. Still, the launching presented a test for candidates in the South's closely contested presidential election.
Both Park Geun-hye, the conservative candidate from the governing party, and Moon Jae-in, her opposition rival, condemned the launching, but they did not withdraw their commitments to dialogue with the North. Both sides have said that President Lee's hard-line policy has failed to deter the North.
The launching appeared to dash the hopes of some analysts that Mr. Kim might soften North Korean's confrontational stance. For Mr. Kim, who has been in office for nearly a year, the launching was important in three respects. Its apparent success, after a test of a similar rocket failed spectacularly seconds after it was launched in April, demonstrated what one American intelligence official called "a more professional operation" to diagnose and solve rocket-design problems similar to those the United States encountered in the 1960s. He built credibility with the powerful North Korean military, whose ranks he purged in recent months, replacing some top leaders with his own loyalists. He also advertised that the country, despite its backwardness and isolation, could master a missile technology that it has previously marketed to Iran, Pakistan and others. Some American officials, who have privately warned of increased missile cooperation between Iran and North Korea over the past year, have argued that the North Korean test would benefit Iran as much as North Korea.
The North has a long way to go before it can threaten the West Coast of the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. It has yet to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop its missile, experts say, and it has not tested a vehicle that can withstand the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. Nor is it clear that the country could aim a missile with much accuracy.
"What's important here is the symbolism, especially if the test seems reasonably successful," said Victor D. Cha, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's not as if the U.S. can describe them anymore as a bunch of crazies who could never get anywhere with their technology. And it ends the argument that Kim Jong-un might be a young, progressive reformer who is determined to take the country in a new direction."
The missile capabilities of a country as opaque as North Korea are notoriously hard to assess. United States and South Korean officials have said that all of the North's four multiple-stage rockets previously launched have exploded in midair or failed in their stated goal of thrusting a satellite into orbit. Nonetheless, during a visit to China early in 2011, Robert M. Gates, Mr. Obama's defense secretary at the time, said that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The range of Wednesday's test would fall far short of that goal, but suggests that the North has learned much about how to launch multistage rockets.
North Korea insisted it was exercising its right to peaceful activity in space. But this is the third time the North has provoked the Obama administration -- and, to some degree, the Chinese -- in four years, including the country's nuclear test in 2009.
Imposing sanctions on the North would be difficult. It has long been one of the most sanctioned countries on earth. While a further crackdown on offshore banking is possible, the North Koreans have no oil of their own to shut off. China could send a message by halting some deliveries to the North.
"Regardless what the international community says about it, this successful launching boosts Kim Jong-un's posture by turning him into a fox in a hen house in Northeast Asia," said Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation. "It paints South Korea, Japan and the United States into a corner because it shows that the North's technology is advancing."
Choe Sang-hun reported from Seoul, South Korea, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.