The Korea Space Launch Vehicle II, informally called Nuri and emblazoned with a South Korean flag, rose upwards from the launch site in Goheung trailing a column of flame.
“It looks like it’s soaring into the sky without problems,” a commentator said. “It is already remarkable that we have achieved this much in our first attempt.”
A rocket successfully deployed its dummy satellite cargo, broadcasters reported, and cheering and applause broke out in the control centre.
In the national assembly, lawmakers stopped proceedings to watch the launch.
South Korea has risen from the ashes of war to become the world’s 12th-largest economy and a technologically advanced nation, home to the planet’s biggest smartphone and memory chip maker, Samsung Electronics.
But it has lagged in the headline-making world of spaceflight, where the Soviet Union led the way with the first satellite launch in 1957, closely followed by the United States.
In Asia, China, Japan and India all have advanced space programmes, and the South’s nuclear-armed neighbour North Korea was the most recent entrant to the club of countries with their own satellite launch capability.
Ballistic missiles and space rockets use similar technology and Pyongyang put a 300-kilogramme (660-pound) satellite into orbit in 2012 in what Western countries condemned as a disguised missile test.
Even now, only six nations — not including North Korea — have successfully launched a one-tonne payload on their own rockets.
The three-stage Nuri rocket has been a decade in development at a cost of 2 trillion won ($1.6 billion). It weighs 200 tonnes and is 47.2 metres (155 feet) long, fitted with a total of six liquid-fuelled engines.
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– Aiming for the Moon –
But the South Korean space programme has a chequered record — its first two launches in 2009 and 2010, which in part used Russian technology, both ended in failure, the second one exploding two minutes into the flight and Seoul and Moscow blaming each other.
Eventually, a 2013 launch succeeded but still relied on a Russian-developed engine for its first stage.
The satellite launch business is increasingly the preserve of private companies, notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX, whose clients include the US space agency NASA and the South Korean military.
But one expert said Nuri offered South Korea “infinite” potential.
“Rockets are the only means available to mankind to go out into space,” Lee Sang-ryul, the director of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, told local paper Chosun Biz ahead of the launch.
“Having such technology means we have fulfilled basic requirements to join this space exploration competition.”
Thursday’s mission is one step on an increasingly ambitious space programme for South Korea, which President Moon Jae-in said would seek to launch a lunar orbiter next year, after he inspected a Nuri engine test in March.
“With achievements in South Korean rocket systems, the government will pursue an active space exploration project,” he said.
“We will realise the dream of landing our probe on the Moon by 2030.”