- South Korea was forced to suspend its previous attempt weeks earlier
- Other launch attempts in 2009 and 2010 had failed
- North Korea successfully launched its own rocket last month, defying U.N. resolutions
- Seoul says it is trying to develop its own civilian space program
South Korea said Wednesday that it had put a satellite in orbit for the first time, giving a lift to its homegrown space industry and matching a feat achieved last month by its hostile neighbor, North Korea.
Amid a billowing plume of smoke, the Naro-1 rocket blasted off from a launch site perched on the edge of an island near the country's southern coast. South Korean television footage showed it ascending into the clear blue sky.
Officials and technicians watched the launch intently to see if it would succeed in delivering its payload into orbit. A crowd of onlookers near the site applauded and waved national flags.
About an hour after takeoff, Science Minister Lee Ju-ho declared the launch a success.
The pressure on the South Korean rocket scientists to get the satellite into space increased after North Korea carried out its own successful launch last month in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Only weeks before that, the South was forced to suspend its previous attempt to launch the Naro-1 rocket after finding problems with the electronic signal just minutes before it was due to take off.
The country's previous launch attempts in 2009 and 2010 had failed.
Wednesday's successful effort comes at a delicate time on the Korean peninsula: North Korea said last week that it plans to conduct a new nuclear test and carry out more rocket launches after the U.N. Security Council voted to tighten sanctions on the secretive regime.
Pyongyang didn't say when it intends to carry out the nuclear test, which follows previous underground detonations in 2006 and 2009.
Although the North's rocket launch last month managed to put an object in space, it was widely considered to be a test of long-range ballistic missile technology. It's unclear whether that satellite is functional.
In its saber-rattling statements last month, North Korea said its missile and nuclear programs were part of a new phase of confrontation with the United States. It also threatened "physical counter-measures" against South Korea if it participates in the imposition of the new sanctions.
South Korean authorities say their latest attempted satellite launch is a crucial step for the development of the country's civilian space program. The satellite carried by the launch vehicle is mainly intended for gathering climate data and other atmospheric information, they say.
Analysts have said the South Korean launch is different from that of the North because it is more transparent, clearly focused on civilian applications and doesn't contravene U.N. sanctions.
The development of the South Korean rocket program, using Russian technology for the first-stage launcher, began in 2002.
Seoul is aiming to develop its own thruster by 2021 through a program estimated to cost 1.5 trillion won (about $1.4 billion).
The successful launch puts South Korea among the small group of nations that have sent a rocket into space from their own soil. Others include the United States, Russia, China, Japan, France, India, Israel, Iran and North Korea.
South Korea already has a number of satellites in space, but they were launched in other countries using foreign rocket technology.