North Korea on Friday launched its controversial rocket carrying a weather satellite, South Korea's Defence Ministry and U.S. officials said.

A spokesman for the Defence Ministry in Seoul told reporters at a briefing that the launch at taken place at 0739 local time (11.39 p.m. British Time) and that South Korea and the United States were checking whether it had been a success.

The launch has drawn international criticism and threats to shoot the rocket down as well as sabotaged a food aid deal with the United States.

The Unha-3 rocket took off from a new launch site on the west coast of North Korea, near the Chinese border, and if successful will enhance Pyongyang's ability to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, critics say.

The three-stage rocket's flight path will take it over the sea between the Korean peninsula and China, where the first stage is due to splash down. A second stage is due to land in waters off the Philippines.

The launch had been timed to coincide with the 100th birthday celebrations of the isolated and impoverished state's founder, Kim Il-sung, and came after a food aid deal with the United States had hinted at an easing of tensions on the world's most militarised border.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by David Chance and Jonathan Hopfner)