North Korea has marked the first anniversary of the death of former ruler Kim Jong-il, days after a successful long-range rocket launch in defiance of international critics.

Tributes were being paid in the capital, Pyongyang, on Sunday to commemorate the man North Koreans call their "Dear leader".

Kim Jong-un, who took over the reins after his father died last year, led thousands of officials in a memorial ceremony.

The current leader, clad in a black suit, sat on stage with dozens of other top officials against the backdrop of a giant red flag featuring a large portrait of a smiling Kim Jong-il.

"The heart of the great leader stopped beating but Comrade Kim Jong-il lives with us forever... to give blessings for the bright future of our people," Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of state, said in a speech.

"The successful launch of our Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite is also another victory achieved by our military and people, by faithfully following the teachings of the great leader [Kim Jong-il]," he said.

Rocket launch

North Korea sent a long-range rocket into orbit on Wednesday, its second attempt in eight months to fulfill the late Kim's 14-year quest to put a satellite into space. International experts confirmed that the rocket succeeded in reaching space.

The government said the launch was a scientific project to put a weather satellite into orbit.

Criticism of the launch was swift. The US called it a covert test of missile technology, and the UN Security Council condemned the launch as a violation of resolutions barring Pyongyang from developing its nuclear and missile programmes.

The impoverished nation apparently timed the launch to mark the death anniversary and to drum up more support for the young and inexperienced new leader.

Choe Ryong-Hae, the head of the political bureau of North Korea's military, vowed to "hit back immediately" if rival South Korea or the US provoked the nation, and reaffirmed loyalty to the young leader.

"Our whole army stands ready for battle under the teachings of Kim Jong-un while the US and South's enemy forces are going amok to destroy our system," he said in a speech.

"It is our firm determination to hit back immediately at provocations...and we solemnly pledge again to faithfully serve our dear supreme commander [Jong-un]," Choe said to big applause from the crowd.

Kim Jong-il, who ruled the communist state for 17 years, died of a heart attack on December 17 last year, according to state media.

Source: Agencies