(Reuters) – North Korea’s much hyped long-range rocket apparently crashed into the sea a few minutes after launch on Friday, U.S. and South Korean officials said, dealing a blow to the prestige of the reclusive and impoverished state as well as to its new leader.
Pyongyang had defied international pressure from the United States, the United Nations and others to push ahead with the launch timed to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the deceased founder of the state.
Even close ally China had warned against the launch and South Korean intelligence officials have said North Korea may be ready to follow it up with a third nuclear test as it did after a rocket launch in 2009.
“South Korean and U.S. intelligence understand that North Korea’s missile launch failed,” a spokesman for the South’s defense ministry told reporters at a briefing.
North Korea said it wanted the Unha-3 rocket to put a weather satellite into orbit, although critics believed it was designed to enhance its capacity to design a ballistic missile to deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the continental United States.
The rocket crashed in a sea that separates the Korean peninsula from China off the west coast of South Korea after flying 120 km (75 miles) from its launch site close to the Chinese border, officials in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo said.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, said the first stage fell into the sea west of South Korea, and the remainder of the satellite-carrying missile was deemed to have failed.
“No debris fell on land,” NORAD said. “At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat.
North Korea’s Space Agency said it had no information on the launch, which triggered an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The launch was announced just weeks after a “Leap Year” deal that saw Washington agree to provide food aid. Among the promises made by Pyongyang in return was that it would not launch a long range rocket or undertake nuclear tests.
The United States, South Korea and Japan condemned the launch, with Washington, Seoul’s major backer saying it would remain vigilant after North Korea’s “provocative” action.
PRICE OF FAILURE FOR “SUPREME COMMANDER”
Now led by 20-something Kim Jong-un, the third of his line to hold power, North Korea had planned to make 2012 the year in which it became a “strong and prosperous nation” and the launch was part of a program to burnish its credentials.
It even invited foreign media in to cover the birthday celebrations and showed them the launch site.
“(There is) no question that the failed launch turns speculation toward the ramifications for the leadership in Pyongyang: a fireworks display gone bad on the biggest day of the year,” said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Eyes will be on how North Korea handles the failure internally. In order to show that it remains powerful, it could undertake a third nuclear test that would again ratchet up international tensions and damage any prospects of a resumption of denuclearization and aid talks.
This will be North Korea’s second consecutive failure to get a satellite into orbit, although it claimed success with a 2009 launch.
Although North Korea is one of the most tightly controlled states on earth, with no free media and a tight grip on its population, such a high profile failure could trigger a backlash among the country’s elite.
“This is the first crisis for the new leader that has just taken over,” said Lee Jong-won, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“It is inevitable that they will look to find who is responsible for the failure, and I wonder what the treatment will be for those in the military and the hard-line officers who have pressed for the launch.”