North Korea rocket breaks up in flight

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A rocket is lifted off from its launch pad in Musudan-ri, North Korea in this April 5, 2009 AP file photo.

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Defying warnings from the international community, North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Friday, but it broke apart before escaping the earth’s atmosphere and fell into the sea.

The launch drew condemnation from United States and countries in the region, as well as an unusual admission of failure from Pyongyang, which had invited in journalists and space experts from around the world for the occasion.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet Friday to discuss the launch, which North Korea insists was intended to put an observation satellite in orbit. The United States, South Korea and Japan say the operation is a cover for a ballistic missile test.

In a break from previous practice, the North Korean state media announced that the rocket had not managed to put the satellite into orbit. In the past, North Korea has insisted that failed launches have been successful.

“Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a report, which was also read out in a news broadcast on state-run television.

The flunked launch is an inauspicious development for the insular North Korean regime and its young leader, Kim Jong Un, just two days before the 100th anniversary of the birth of the communist state’s founder, a landmark occasion.

Earlier this week, state media had heralded the launch as “an inspiring deed and an event of historic significance of the nation as it demonstrates the leaping development of space science and technology of the country.”

Joseph Cirincione, president of the global security foundation The Ploughshares Fund, said that the launch’s apparent failure “shows the weakness of the North Korea missile program.”

“It’s a humiliation,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be a North Korean rocket scientist today.”

The rocket’s short, fruitless flight soothed some concerns among North Korea’s neighbors, which had feared parts of the projectile could threaten their territory. But the failure also raised questions about Pyongyang’s next move.

“It flew about a minute, and it flew into the ocean,” said Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. He added that Japanese authorities, which had deployed missile defenses, “have not identified any negative impacts, so far.”

South Korea, which has criticized the launch as a “grave provocation,” said it was searching the waters near where the rocket fell for debris — a chance to gain insights into the North’s technology.

Governments insisted that Pyongyang would still face consequences for flaunting U.N. resolutions.

The White House press secretary, in a statement, said that North Korea’s failed launch “threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments.”

The statement added, “North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts.”

Shikata, the Japanese prime minister’s spokesman, said the international ramifications could be significant. “This is something that we think is a regrettable development,” he said.

“Our government strongly criticizes their action,” said South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Sung-hwan. “They have ignored the starvation of their people and spent money on missiles. It is very unfortunate.”

The U.N. Security Council will meet Friday on the launch, two U.N. diplomats and a U.S. official told CNN. The meeting had previously been scheduled, U.S. officials said.

At the United Nations, diplomats had warned that Pyongyang would face further isolation if it went ahead.

The U.S. official said that, despite the launch’s failure, “it will not change our response.”

The last time Pyongyang carried out what it described as a satellite launch, in April 2009, the U.N. Security Council condemned the action and demanded that it not be repeated.

That rocket traveled 2,300 miles before its third stage fell into the Pacific Ocean. And in 2006, a missile failed after about 40 seconds in flight.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, said before the launch that Security Council members didn’t have a “clear agreement” about what steps to take if the launch were to go ahead. “But one thing I can tell you: We have unanimity of understanding that if it were to happen, that would be a clear violation of two Security Council resolutions.”

Following the rocket’s failure, China, the closest ally of North Korea, urged the parties involved to “remain calm and exercise restraint, and not do anything that would harm the peace and stability of the peninsula,” according to a statement posted on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The rocket took off at 7:38 a.m. on Friday. It broke into two parts after about two minutes, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

About six minutes later, the two sections of the rocket separated into smaller pieces, which dropped into the sea, the ministry said.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command officials tracked the missile, which they identified as a North Korean Taepo Dong-2 missile.

“Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 km west of Seoul, South Korea,” they said in a news release. “The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat.”

The debris is spread over an area about 20 kilometers (12 miles) long, said Kim Kwan-jin, the South Korean defense minister.

International leaders had urged North Korea to cancel the launch, but Pyongyang refused to back down, insisting the operation is for peaceful purposes.

The Obama administration says the launch prevents the United States from following through on a deal reached in February to provide much needed food aid to North Korea.

“U.S. delivery of food aid is contingent on our ability to monitor the delivery of that assistance so it goes to North Korea people who are starving and not to elites or the military,” a senior administration official said. “North Korea’s provocations make it impossible to have confidence that those monitoring agreements can be implemented.”

Officials appear to be bracing for more unsettling actions from Pyongyang.

“This launch will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to the existence of their system,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week. “And recent history strongly suggests that additional provocations may follow.”

A recent report from South Korean intelligence officials said that North Korea is planning a new nuclear test in the area where it staged previous atomic blasts.

The South Korean intelligence report noted that the two previous rocket launches that Pyongyang said were intended to put satellites into orbit were followed a few weeks or months later by nuclear tests.

Rocket launch may provide intelligence windfall

“Often when they’ve had failures of this kind, they reach into their bag and find other things to do,” said Christopher Hill, a former lead U.S. negotiator at talks over the North Korean nuclear program who now teaches at the University of Denver. “And so I would be concerned about the potential of an actual nuclear test coming up.”

A spokesman from the South Korean Defense Ministry said that Seoul was “keeping a close eye on the possibility of North Korea conducting a nuclear test” and that the South Korean military was “fortifying its stance.”

The launch Friday came amid North Korean preparations to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea who ruled the Communist state for more than four decades. His birthday on April 15, known as the “Day of the Sun,” is a key public holiday.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party held a special conference that helped firm up the position of Kim’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, the secretive state’s new leader.

Korean television showed a somber Kim standing beneath two towering statues of his grandfather and his late father, Kim Jong Il, while receiving applause from party functionaries and the military. Kim Jong Il was given the title of “eternal general secretary” of the Workers’ Party, while Kim Jong Un was named the party’s first secretary.

But while that ceremony went according to plan, the subsequent launch did not.

“This was supposed to be associated with (Kim Jong Un’s) ascension to power. So for this thing to fail … is incredibly embarrassing,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs for the U.S. National Security Council and now a Georgetown University professor.

Credit: Tim Schwarz, CNN. CNN’s Dan Lothian, Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Larry Shaughnessy, Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott, Stan Grant, Barbara Starr, Paula Hancocks, Richard Roth and Judy Kwon contributed to this report.