Pyongyang’s state TV announced it successfully put a satellite into orbit, “legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes”.
Many others saw a clear defiance of multiple UN resolutions — a disguised test of a ballistic missile which could one day deliver a warhead as far as the US mainland.
The United Nations labelled the launch “deeply deplorable” and Japan termed it “absolutely intolerable”. Even the isolated state’s sole major ally China expressed “regret”.
The international community is still struggling to reach agreement on how to respond to Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test — of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb — on January 6.
After Sunday’s launch, South Korean and US defence officials announced they would begin formal talks on deploying a US missile defence system in South Korea.
The US says the highly advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would be a deterrent necessitated by the North’s advancing ballistic missile programme.
But China and Russia fear it could trigger an arms race in a delicately balanced region.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called the North’s actions “deeply deplorable” and demanded it “halt its provocative actions and return to compliance with its international obligations”.
At Seoul’s request the UN Security Council will hold emergency talks on the launch later Sunday.
The United States and its allies want to intensify sanctions on the North. But veto-wielding council member China, Pyongyang’s main trading partner and oil supplier, has in the past blocked tougher measures.
Washington denounced the launch as “destabilising and provocative”.
“North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs represent serious threats to our interests — including the security of some of our closest allies — and undermine peace and security in the broader region,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the North’s actions “absolutely intolerable”. Russia termed the launch a serious blow to regional security including that of Pyongyang itself.
“It is obvious that such actions lead to a serious aggravation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia on the whole…(and) inflict serious damage to the security of the countries of the region, first and foremost North Korea itself,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
France condemned the launch as “senseless provocation” and called for a “rapid and tough” response from the Security Council.
Australia also urged a strong council response.
The launch “is yet another example of the North Korean regime choosing militarism and isolation over the welfare of its own people”, said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
China, in a more muted reaction, “expressed regret”.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Pyongyang had “the right to the peaceful use of space, but that right is limited by the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions”.
Hua called for “all relevant parties to deal with the situation calmly” and for “dialogue and consultations” about the Korean peninsula.
Relations between China and its neighbour have been strained by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and Beijing expressed opposition to the North’s nuclear test last month.
On Friday, the US and South Korean presidents spoke with their Chinese counterpart in separate telephone calls to demand punitive measures in the UN against the North.
However observers say China is concerned that cutting off trade with the North could trigger a flood of refugees across its border. It also fears a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang may lead to a US-allied unified Korea on its doorstep.