North Korea’s long-range rocket failed minutes after liftoff in the biggest setback to Kim Jong Un since he succeeded his father as head of the totalitarian state four months ago.
Scientists are investigating what went wrong, North Korea’s state media said. The missile reached an altitude of 151 kilometers (93 miles) before disintegrating into 20 pieces and falling into the ocean 100 to 150 kilometers off the western coast, South Korean Major General Shin Won Sik said at a press conference in Seoul. Asian stocks and the won rose.
The botched firing may put pressure on the new leader to demonstrate his military power by conducting a nuclear test, and General Shin said South Korea is on alert for the possibility. The launch also complicates U.S.-led efforts to engage North Korea after Kim took over control of the reclusive state following Kim Jong Il’s death in December.
“Kim Jong Un has lost an enormous amount of face,” said Brian Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. “This makes an underground nuclear test virtually a certainty.”
Chances are “very high” that Kim’s regime will fire more long-range missiles, conduct a nuclear test, or carry out some other provocation to garner domestic support, South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Lim Kwan Bin said in parliament today.
The rocket “failed to enter its preset orbit” after liftoff from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, state-run Korean Central News Agency said. “Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure.”
It was the fourth time the country has fired a long-range rocket. The last time was in April 2009, when a Taepondong-2 missile flew 3,800 to 4,000 kilometers before disintegrating, according to Baek Seung Joo, a North Korea specialist at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
The MSCI Asia Pacific Index climbed 0.9 percent, while the won rose 0.5 percent to 1,135 per dollar.
The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency session later today, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the launch “threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments,” and an Obama administration official said the U.S. will halt planned shipments of thousands of tons in food aid in response.
Japan joined the U.S. and South Korea in denouncing today’s act. Kim’s regime has said the projectile would carry a satellite into orbit to mark the April 15 centennial of state founder Kim Il Sung.
While the government in Pyongyang insisted it was not a long-range missile test in violation of a February agreement to end nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food, Obama administration officials had warned otherwise.
“We urge the North Korean leadership to honor its agreements and refrain from a pursuing a cycle of provocation,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Washington after a Group of Eight foreign ministers’ meeting. “It can pursue peace and reap the benefits of closer ties with the international community, including the United States, or it can continue to face pressure and isolation.”
Kim Jong Un was named head of North Korea’s sole political party April 11 in a display of his hereditary grip on power. His late father was named “eternal secretary general” of the Workers’ Party, the Korean Central News Agency said.
“They want to show the world that they are capable of developing a long-range ballistic missile,” said Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “It has not happened. So this will decrease the efficiency of their blackmail diplomacy.”
A South Korean intelligence report warned that North Korea may follow the rocket launch with the detonation of an atomic device. Recent activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is consistent with preparations for previous detonations in 2006 and 2009, according to the intelligence report obtained April 9 by Bloomberg News.
“I’m not surprised the North Koreans launched and I’m not surprised it failed,” said James Acton, a senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “I will also not be surprised if, in the next few months, they test a nuclear weapon.”
The North’s economy contracted 0.5 percent to 30 trillion won ($26.3 billion) in 2010, compared with South Korea’s 1,173 trillion won, according to the South’s central bank. North Korea had a food shortfall of as much as 700,000 metric tons of food last year, according to the UN, and is dependent on aid from China, its only ally.
China today called on all parties to not do anything that harms the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in statement on the ministry’s website.
The test involved a Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite mounted on an Unha-3 carrier rocket, according to North Korea. The firing took place on the second day of the window between April 12 and 16 that the North had specified in its filing with international agencies.
Kwangmyongsong means “bright star,” a word North Koreans have used to describe late leader Kim Jong Il. “Unha” means galaxy.
The UN Security Council banned North Korea from using any missile technology in 2009 shortly after the North fired a long- range missile carrying what it said was a communications satellite that failed to enter orbit.
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