North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) claps as he attends the unveiling ceremony of two statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang on April 13, 2012.  North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-Un on April 13 led a mass rally for his late father and grandfather following the country's failed rocket launch. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones        (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) claps as he attends the unveiling ceremony of two statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang on April 13, 2012. North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-Un on April 13 led a mass rally for his late father and grandfather following the country's failed rocket launch. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:53
Concerns over expected North Korean space rocket launch
PHOTO: Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/Getty Images/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
Now playing
01:27
North, South Korean leaders to meet again
PHOTO: Airbus Defense and Space
Now playing
01:44
New images show N. Korea dismantling test site
PHOTO: CNNI
Now playing
00:40
Pompeo dismisses N. Korea's 'gangster' comments
SINGAPORE - JUNE 12: In this handout photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic U.S.-DPRK summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the historic meeting between leaders of both countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying hopes to end decades of hostility and the threat of North Korea's nuclear program. (Photo by Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Handout/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
SINGAPORE - JUNE 12: In this handout photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during their historic U.S.-DPRK summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held the historic meeting between leaders of both countries on Tuesday morning in Singapore, carrying hopes to end decades of hostility and the threat of North Korea's nuclear program. (Photo by Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:56
Kim Jong Un snubbed Mike Pompeo, source says
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09:  National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09: National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:34
Bolton: US has plan for denuclearizing N. Korea
PHOTO: Planet Labs Inc.
Now playing
01:25
Satellite images show missile plant construction
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
01:14
Susan Rice: Kim Jong Un beat Trump at summit
Images of the Norrth Korea missile launch on November 28 taken from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official newspaper.
PHOTO: From Rodong Sinmun
Images of the Norrth Korea missile launch on November 28 taken from Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official newspaper.
Now playing
02:14
Will North Korea restart nuclear tests?
PHOTO: Photo Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
03:00
Will Kim Jong Un ever give up his nukes?
PHOTO: Photo Illustration/Getty Images
Now playing
02:27
What's bringing Kim Jong Un to the table
Now playing
01:51
Who is Kim Jong Un?
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
01:43
Connolly: Trump comment on Kim 'jaw-dropping'
Now playing
02:31
Moon: The masterful dealmaker
Trump Kim Jong Un comment 04240218
PHOTO: CNN
Trump Kim Jong Un comment 04240218
Now playing
01:26
Trump: Kim Jong Un very open and honorable
Now playing
03:06
Finding art on the edge of the DMZ

Story highlights

NEW: North Korea launched a rocket Sunday morning, a defense official in South Korea told CNN

Analysts worry that Pyongyang's space program masks military testing

North Korea said it tested a hydrogen bomb in January

(CNN) —  

North Korea launched a rocket Sunday morning, according to a South Korean defense ministry official, despite objections from its neighbors.

Before the launch, North Korea had said it would put a satellite into orbit, but the launch is viewed by others as a front for a ballistic missile test.

The move will test already shaky regional security. South Korea had condemned the planned launch as a “direct challenge against the international community,” and had warned that North Korea would pay a “grave price” if it went ahead.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also had urged North Korea to “refrain” from the launch and said his cabinet was working closely with the United States and South Korea to gather information.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang had expressed “deep concern” in advance of the launch.

“We hope (North Korea) will exercise restraint and caution in its actions. It should not act in a way that may escalate tensions on the peninsula,” Lu said Wednesday.

Japanese and South Korean airlines have altered flight paths to avoid possible falling rocket parts. Based on coordinates provided by North Korea to the International Maritime Organization, the first stage and nose cone of the rocket will drop off in waters between South Korea and China. Its second stage is expected to fall into waters off the Philippines’ northern coast.

Satellite… or nuclear missile?

At present, North Korea is believed to have one satellite in orbit, the Kwangmyongsong 3-2, though doubts have been raised about whether it is functioning.

While Pyongyang claims that its space program is entirely peaceful, many international observers think the true purpose is military.

The same technology used to launch a satellite into orbit could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead.

China, the Soviet Union and the United States have all used intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch satellites in the past.

The Unha rocket used to launch North Korea’s last satellite is believed to be based upon the Taepodong long-range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of around 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers).

That would put Australia, much of Western Europe, and the U.S. West Coast in range of a North Korean warhead.

According to multiple experts, North Korea has at least a dozen and perhaps as many as 100 nuclear weapons, though at present it lacks sophisticated delivery mechanisms.

North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb in early January.

According to a 2015 report on Pyongyang’s space program by 38 North, testing rockets through satellite launches would provide invaluable data for potential future ICBMs.

“Even failed satellite launches would be a learning experience,” wrote aerospace engineer John Schilling.

Schilling said a key sign to look out for in future North Korean satellite launches would be attempts to test an advanced re-entry vehicle, vital for an effective ICBM.

CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.