North Korea satellite launch fails quickly after liftoff


SEOUL — North Korea failed in its much-hyped effort to launch a satellite into space Friday, undercutting its claims to be a “strong and prosperous” nation on the centennial of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth.

After weeks of boasting by the country, the missile launched at 7:39 a.m. on a sunny, wind-free morning from a base near the west coast city of Sinuiju.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence reports say the rocket quickly broke up and splashed into the Yellow Sea.

“The missile traveled one to two minutes and broke apart in the air. It broke into 20 separate pieces,” Shin Won-shik, a South Korean Defense Ministry official, said at a briefing Friday morning.

Shin said some of the debris fell 60 to 90 miles off the west coast of South Korea.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said the first stage of the missile fell into the sea about 100 miles west of Seoul. The remaining stages were believed to have failed and no debris fell on land, NORAD said, adding that the missile and resultant debris were never a threat.

The failure could be a domestic and international public relations disaster and undermine the legitimacy of North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, who is still in his 20s. He took over in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

“North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments,” the White House said in a statement. “North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry.”

An administration official who requested anonymity while discussing sensitive topics predicted that the failure “will have ramifications internally.”

The official credited tough economic sanctions with restricting North Korea’s access to advanced electronics and other crucial equipment.

Unlike previous occasions, North Korea acknowledged that the satellite had failed to reach orbit.

“Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

Previous attempts to launch a satellite also failed, most recently in 2009 when a missile and its payload splashed into the Sea of Japan.

Friday’s launch was designed not only to commemorate the birth of Kim Il Sung on April 15, 1912, but also to confirm the legitimacy of his grandson Kim Jong Un, the third generation of the dynasty but an untested leader.

In addition, Pyongyang took the unusual step of admitting dozens of international television reporters, who were taken Sunday on a tour of the launch site. Television has been broadcasting a stream of video of the missile called Unha-3, or “Galaxy-3,” emblazoned with the North Korean red star, against a backdrop of hardscrabble mountains.

From a diplomatic standpoint, the failure of the launch could ease international pressure on the regime.

“There is a big difference between this thing being in orbit and having blown up,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea specialist at UC San Diego. “It makes the threat less imminent, and that is going to play into the metrics of how the world responds.”

Although North Korea said its rocket was purely for peaceful use, the technology of launching a satellite is similar to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the main difference being the payload carried by the rocket.

The U.S. agreed on Feb. 29 to supply desperately poor North Korea with a food aid package, just weeks before Pyongyang announced the missile launch. The Obama administration then threatened to scrap the deal.

The launch “was also a chance for North Korea to showcase its military wares to prospective customers,” the administration official said. Its failure “will make those customers think twice before buying anything.”

In North Korea, the failed test could undermine the regime among a population that has lived for decades on the verge of starvation. Despite laws blocking people from watching foreign television or listening to foreign radio, news increasingly seeps into the country, and people are likely to learn that the much-hyped satellite launch failed.

In 2009, North Korea’s propaganda machine bragged that its communications satellite was spinning the Earth and broadcasting paeans to Kim Il Sung and then-leader Kim Jong Il.

On South Korean television Friday, military analyst Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said that “for the North, it will be hard to admit failure, but impossible to insist that the launch has been successful because there are foreign journalists present.”

If North Korea had succeeded, it would have given the impoverished state a big morale boost in claiming superiority over the richer South, which had unsuccessful satellite launches in 2009 and 2010 — and enhanced its claims that it could defend itself against the U.S.

David Wright, an arms control expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the failure of the rocket to reach even the first-stage splashdown zone about 80 miles from the launch site demonstrated that North Korea’s rocket science was far from the long-range capability needed to deliver a nuclear warhead.

“The reason this launch was seen as a big deal was because it was seen as an indication of how far North Korea has advanced on the road toward a working ballistic missile,” Wright said. “It didn’t even get as far with it as it did last time.”

Unlike previous launches off the east coast, which unnerved Japan, this one was directed due south, threading its way over the sea between China and South Korea. Had all three stages succeeded, the second stage would have splashed down near the Philippines.

The race will be on now to get to the fallen debris to analyze what went wrong and to determine where North Korea obtained components to build the missile. North Korea is believed to have worked closely with Iran and Pakistan, and may have purchased some parts from China.

“The missile cognoscenti are going to wonder whether there are Chinese components in it and whether outsiders can get access to the space junk that has fallen to Earth,” Haggard said.

Demick reported from Beijing and special correspondent Choi reported from Seoul.

Times staff writers Ken Dilanian in Washington and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.