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Huge crowds gather in North Korean capital to celebrate rocket launch

By Paula Hancocks and Jethro Mullen, CNN
December 14, 2012 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: North Korean state media say satellite is to monitor weather
  • Crowds of soldiers and civilians applaud speeches in Pyongyang
  • A controversial rocket launch by North Korea put a satellite in orbit this week
  • Move was a public relations victory for Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young leader

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- North Korea held a huge rally Friday in the center of its capital, Pyongyang, to celebrate the launch of a long-range rocket this week that put a satellite in orbit and provoked international condemnation.

A special broadcast on state-run television showed crowds of soldiers and civilians standing in neat ranks, clapping and cheering as officials made congratulatory speeches praising the regime's ruling dynasty.

The rocket launch Wednesday took place sooner than many observers expected and was criticized by many countries since it was widely seen as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology that North Korea has been forbidden from using by the United Nations.

But state media reported Friday that the satellite is weather-related and will "gain information on temperatures of sea and land surfaces and atmosphere, humidity and wind and other meteorological data."

Putting the satellite in orbit was a technological breakthrough for the secretive North Korean regime, and a public relations victory for its young leader, Kim Jong Un. North Korea claims the launch was carried out for peaceful purposes.

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The successful launch was the result of Kim's "unique will, courage and boldness," Jang Chol, head of the State Academy of Sciences, said at the rally Friday, his words echoing out over the assembled masses, many of whom were wearing thick coats as they stood in a snow-dusted square.

Kim's late father, Kim Jong Il, was also singled out as having made the launch possible through his military-first policy that channeled billions of dollars into the development of missiles and nuclear weapons.

More crowds are expected to gather in Pyongyang on Monday, the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death.

North Korea's achievement of putting an object in orbit, after years of failed attempts, stoked fresh concerns among world leaders about the reclusive state's missile and nuclear programs.

Experts do not believe North Korea has a nuclear warhead small enough to fly on the kind of missile that Pyongyang has now proved it can send long distance.

And the United States believes the North Koreans may not have full control of the satellite they launched into space, according to a U.S. official who declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information.

But the launch allowed the regime to flex its military and technological muscle on the world stage.

Kim Jong Un has "stressed the need to continue to launch satellites in the future," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a report Thursday, raising the prospect of more controversial moves in the future.

State media also released images of Kim apparently watching the launch unfold. He was shown sitting with a cigarette in his left hand before a large screen that appeared to display the rocket's trajectory.

Members of the U.N. Security Council condemned the rocket launch Wednesday, and the United States is pushing for tougher sanctions on Pyongyang.

But China, North Korea's main ally and the holder of veto power at the United Nations, has so far taken a cautious stance, urging the Security Council to be "prudent" on the issue and "avoid escalating the situation."

CNN's Paula Hancocks reported from Seoul, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN's K.J. Kwon in Seoul, Dayu Zhang in Beijing and Barbara Starr in Washington contributed to this report.

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