North Korea spy satellite launch fails as rocket falls into sea

Pyongyang vowed to conduct a second launch soon

SKOREA-NKOREA-MILITARY-SPACE This photo provided by South Korea's Defense Ministry, shows an object, left, salvaged by South Korea's military that is presumed to be part of the North Korean space-launch vehicle that crashed into sea following a launch failure in waters off Eocheongdo island, South Korea | AP

North Korea's attempt to put the country's first spy satellite into space failed Wednesday in a setback to leader Kim Jong Un's push to boost his military capabilities as tensions with the United States and South Korea rise.

After an unusually quick admission of failure, North Korea vowed to conduct a second launch after learning what went wrong with its rocket liftoff. It suggests Kim remains determined to expand his weapons arsenal and apply more pressure on Washington and Seoul while diplomacy is stalled.

South Korea and Japan briefly urged residents to take shelter after the launch.

The South Korean military said it was salvaging an object presumed to be part of the crashed North Korean rocket in waters 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of the southwestern island of Eocheongdo. Later, the Defense Ministry released photos of a white, metal cylinder it described as a suspected rocket part.

A satellite launch by North Korea is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the country from conducting any launch based on ballistic technology. Observers say North Korea's previous satellite launches helped improve its long-range missile technology, though the latest launch likely was more focused on deploying a spy satellite. North Korea has already shown it may have the ability to strike all of the U.S. mainland after years of intercontinental ballistic missile tests, though outside experts say the North has yet to acquire functioning nuclear missiles.

The newly developed Chollima-1 rocket, which was carrying the Malligyong-1 satellite, was launched at 6:37 a.m. at the North's Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in the northwest. The rocket crashed off the Korean Peninsula's western coast after it lost thrust following the separation of its first and second stages, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

It said the country's space agency will investigate defects revealed in the launch, take urgent measures to overcome them and conduct the second launch as soon as possible through various part tests.

It is impressive when the North Korean regime actually admits failure, but it would be difficult to hide the fact of a satellite launch failure internationally, and the regime will likely offer a different narrative domestically, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said. This outcome also suggests that Pyongyang may stage another provocation soon, in part to make up for today's setback.

Seoul's military said it boosted military readiness in coordination with the United States, and Japan said it prepared to respond to any emergency.

South Korea's military said the North Korean rocket had an abnormal flight before it fell in the water. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that no object was believed to have reached space.

Adam Hodge, a spokesperson at the U.S. National Security Council, said in a statement that Washington strongly condemns the North Korean launch because it used banned ballistic missile technology, raised tensions, and risked destabilizing security in the region and beyond.

Hodge said the United States urges North Korea to return to talks and cease its provocative actions. He said the U.S. will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and the defense of South Korea and Japan.

The U.N. imposed economic sanctions on North Korea over its previous satellite and ballistic missile launches. But it did not impose new sanctions over recent tests because China and Russia, permanent council members now locked in confrontations with the U.S., have blocked attempts to toughen the sanctions.

Matsuno said North Korea's repeated missile launches pose serious threats to the peace and safety of Japan, the region and the international community. Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan plans to keep the missile defense systems deployed to Japanese southern islands and in the southwestern waters in place until June 11, which is the end of North Korea's stated launch window.

The South's capital of Seoul issued alerts over public loudspeakers and cellphone text messages telling residents to prepare for evacuation after the launch was detected. Japan activated a missile warning system for Okinawa prefecture in southwestern Japan, in the rocket's suspected path. Both the alerts in Okinawa and Seoul were later lifted.

Please evacuate into buildings or underground, the Japanese alert said.

KCNA didn't provide details of the rocket and the satellite beyond their names. But experts earlier said North Korea would likely use a liquid-fueled rocket as most of its previously tested long-range rockets and missiles have done.

Though it plans a fuller investigation, the North's National Aerospace Development Administration attributed the failure to the low reliability and stability of the new-type engine system applied to (the) carrier rocket and the unstable character of the fuel, according to KCNA.

On Tuesday, Ri Pyong Chol, a top North Korean official, said the North needed a space-based reconnaissance system to counter escalating security threats from South Korea and the United States.

However, the spy satellite disclosed in the country's state-run media earlier didn't appear to be sophisticated enough to produce high-resolution imagery. Some outside experts said it may still be able to detect troop movements and large targets such as warships and warplanes.

Recent commercial satellite imagery of the North's Sohae launch center showed active construction indicating North Korea plans to launch more than one satellite. In his Tuesday statement, Ri also said North Korea would test various reconnaissance means" to monitor moves by the United States and its allies in real time.

With three to five spy satellites, North Korea could build a space-based surveillance system that allows it to monitor the Korean Peninsula in near real-time, according to Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute.

The satellite is one several high-tech weapons systems that Kim has publicly vowed to introduce. Other weapons on his wish list include a multi-warhead missile, a nuclear submarine, a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile and a hypersonic missile. In his visit to the space agency in mid-May, Kim emphasized the strategic significance of a spy satellite in North Korea's standoff with the United States and South Korea.

Denuclearization talks with the U.S. have been stalled since early 2019. In the meantime, Kim has focused on expanding his nuclear and missile arsenals in what experts say is an attempt to wrest concessions from Washington and Seoul. Since the beginning of 2022, North Korea has conducted more than 100 missile tests, many of them involving nuclear-capable weapons targeting the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea says its testing activities are self-defense measures meant to respond to expanded military drills between Washington and Seoul that it views as invasion rehearsals. U.S. and South Korean officials say their drills are defensive and they've bolstered them to cope with growing nuclear threats by North Korea.

Easley, the professor, said Kim has likely increased pressure on his scientists and engineers to launch the spy satellite as rival South Korea successfully launched its first commercial-grade satellite aboard its domestically-built Nuri rocket earlier this month.

South Korea is expected to launch its first spy satellite later this year, and analysts say Kim likely wants his country to launch its spy satellite before the South to reinforce his military credentials at home.

After repeated failures, North Korea successfully put its first satellite into orbit in 2012, and the second one in 2016. The government said both are Earth-observation satellites launched under its peaceful space development program, but many foreign experts believed both were developed to spy on rivals.

Observers say there has been no evidence that the satellites have ever transmitted imagery back to North Korea. 

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