SEOUL — Defying international calls for restraint, North Korea launched a three-stage, satellite-tipped rocket early Friday, though military officials in South Korea and elsewhere said the test was a prompt failure.
The Unha-3 rocket was fired about 7:39 a.m. local time from its launch pad at Dongchang-ri in the northwestern part of the country, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters in a nationally televised news conference in South Korea.
But in a major embarrassment on a project timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, the missile quickly fell apart.
“A few minutes after the launch, the rocket disintegrated into several pieces and lost its altitude,” Mr. Kim said.
The Defense Ministry subsequently added that first- and second-stage debris had landed in the Yellow Sea, some 120 to 130 miles off the South Korean port of Kunsan.
The Japanese government, which has been closely monitoring launch preparation, said the rocket reached an altitude of 75 miles, then broke up into four pieces, which fell into the Yellow Sea.
There was no immediate official announcement from North Korean media about the rocket launch. Although a number of global media organizations were in the country, none were invited to witness the launch, early reports from Pyongyang stated.
The launch had been condemned by the international community because the technology used to launch a satellite into orbit is identical to that used for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The U.N. Security Council meets Friday to discuss how to respond to the North Korean launch, CNN reported.
Washington said the launch, which North Korea insists was for peaceful purposes, violated U.N. resolutions.
“Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement that also said President Obama was prepared to engage with North Korea, but the state must first live up to its obligations.
A U.S. official told the Associated Press that the launch means planned U.S. food aid to North Korea will be cancelled.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has called the launch “a grave provocation” convened an emergency meeting Friday morning.
Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said his country is “strongly condemning North Korea’s new leadership” for ignoring international warnings to cancel the launch. His ministry was planning to call his counterparts in the Philippines and Australia to gather information about the rocket.
South Korean crews were checking waters off the west coast, while Japanese teams were searching waters near Okinawa for missile debris.
Meanwhile, experts were monitoring how high and how far the rocket traveled to compare the measures to those of previous tests of what the world believes were attempts by the North Koreans to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 2006 and 2009.
“The last test in 2009, the range was about [2,360 miles],” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis (KIDA). “When [North Korea] developed the Taepodong missile, it wanted a range of [4,160 miles]. To fit the category of an ICBM, the range should be at least [3,400 miles], so North Korea will assess success or failure based on range.”
The firing was part of commemorations to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. His grandson, Kim Jong-un, on Wednesday officially was named “first secretary” of the North Korean Workers Party; his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December, remains “eternal general secretary” of the party.
The North’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, was expected to convene Friday.
North Korea is now believed to have about six nuclear devices, though it has not yet managed to compress its fissile materials into a warhead.
Mr. Baek, of KIDA, said that the North wants to be recognized as a de facto nuclear state like Pakistan.
“Although the U.S. does not recognize Pakistan as a nuclear state, Pakistan has secured a number of concessions from the U.S.,” said Mr. Baek. “North Korea wants a similar pass. It is widely assumed for a nation to be a nuclear power it needs to conduct three [to] four nuclear tests. North Korean scholars show great interest in the Pakistan model.”
Other experts warned that North Korea will never give up its existing deterrent.
“They might be willing to freeze existing programs, but will keep a certain amount of nuclear devices — enough for the U.S. to pay attention to their demands, and to ensure that the U.S. does not attack them,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University.