North Korea’s vaunted long-range Unha 3 rocket roared off its launch pad early Friday, broke into several pieces and plunged into the Yellow Sea between South Korea and China slightly more than one minute later, South Korean defense officials said.
The failure of the rocket, which North Korea said would put a weather satellite into orbit, comes as a huge embarrassment for North Korea during the buildup for massive celebrations Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the North’s founding “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.
North Korean officials had no immediate comment for the foreign journalists invited to Pyongyang for the launch, while North Korean TV broadcast video footage of scenes from the life of Kim Il-sung, who led the country for nearly 50 years before dying in 1994.
In the face of a public-relations dilemma, however, North Korea was not expected to let the failure interfere with Sunday's birthday bash, much less to acknowledge failure.
“They will propagandize it as scientific achievement,” predicts Kim Tae-woo, a long-time defense analyst and president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “They will say it has been successful. It is propaganda for their own people.”
North Korea is also expected to remain defiant while the United Nations Security Council meets Friday to consider how to respond. The Security Council basically has the choice of issuing a statement of “condemnation” of the launch or strengthening sanctions imposed after North Korea test-fired an earlier version of the rocket in April 2009 and then conducted its second underground nuclear test six weeks later.
“North Korea will get angry at the action of the UN, and they will use that as an excuse for another nuclear test,” says Mr. Kim.
A South Korean defense official said the rocket lifted at 7:39 a.m. local time Friday – 6:39 p.m. Eastern time Thursday. The rocket was to have been on a trajectory taking it over or near the southernmost Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa and past the northern Philippines before landing in the south Pacific.
Shortly after announcing the liftoff, the same defense official said that the rocket had failed. That word came initially from a Pentagon spokesman in Washington and was also confirmed by Japan’s Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka.
South Korean sources said the rocket had fallen into the sea about 140 miles west of Kunsan, a major port on the southwest South Korean coast. Two South Korean destroyers, both equipped with the latest Aegis radar and ship-to-air missile systems, were already patrolling the waters, ready to fire at portions of the missile if it seemed they might land on South Korean territory.
The pair of destroyers, along with smaller craft and helicopters, churned the waters after the failure looking for debris that might have fallen from the rocket. It was believed it might have broken up at the critical first stage of separation when one portion falls off while the remainder ascends before the second stage.
Although the US has a major air base at Kunsan, a US military spokesman said there was no sign US planes or ships would join in the search for pieces of the rocket.
A major question is whether the North Korean rocket was indeed carrying a satellite. US and South Korean officials believe the satellite claim was false and that the firing was to test the rocket’s ability to carry a warhead as far as the US West Coast.
Analyst Kim believes North Korea is committed to developing missiles and nuclear weapons partly to prove the power of the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. He took over after his father, Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung, died in December.
“What they are concerned about is not to improve the quality of life of their people,” he says, “but to consolidate behind Kim Jong-un.”