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Apr 13, 2012 1 Comment ›› Pat Dollard

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) – North Korea’s widely condemned rocket splintered into pieces over the Yellow Sea soon after takeoff Friday, an embarrassing end to a launch that Pyongyang had infused with national pride during a week of high-level political meetings and celebrations.

Within minutes of the early morning launch, the United States and South Korea declared it a failure. North Korea acknowledged that hours later in an announcement broadcast on state TV, saying the satellite that the rocket was carrying had been unable to enter into orbit.

The rocket’s destruction suggests the country has yet to master the technology needed to build long-range missiles that could threaten the United States. Still, worries remain about North Korea’s nuclear program amid reports that it may be planning an atomic test soon.

The launch is also a setback for the government of new leader Kim Jong Un, which had projected the satellite as a show of strength amid persistent economic hardship while he solidifies power following the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, four months ago.

North Korea had announced weeks earlier that it would launch a long-range rocket mounted with an observational satellite, touting it as a major technological achievement to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and current leader’s grandfather.

The failure “blows a big hole in the birthday party,” said Victor Cha, former director for Asia policy in the U.S. National Security Council. “It’s terribly embarrassing for the North.”

Experts say the Unha-3 carrier was the same type of rocket that would be used to strike the U.S. and other targets with a long-range missile.

Greg Thielmann, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. State Department, said it now appears the North Koreans haven’t mastered the technology they need to control multistage rockets – a key capability if the North is to threaten the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korea has tested two atomic devices but is not yet believed to be able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile.

Cha, who was an Asia adviser for former President George W. Bush, said the next step would be to watch whether North Korea conducts a third nuclear test, as has been speculated by the South Korean intelligence community.

“Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

Kim Jong Un, who has been given several important titles this week meant to strengthen his rule, was named Friday as first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, while Kim Jong Il became “chairman for eternity.”