North Korea’s much-touted satellite launch ended in a nearly US$1 billion failure, bringing humiliation to the country’s new young leader and condemnation from a host of nations. The UN Security Council deplored the launch, but stopped short of imposing new penalties in response.
The rocket’s disintegration on Friday over the Yellow Sea brought a rare public acknowledgment of failure from Pyongyang, which had hailed the launch as a show of strength amid North Korea’s persistent economic hardship.
For the 20-something North Korean leader Kim Jong-un it was to have been a highlight of the celebratory events surrounding his ascension to top political power. It was timed to coincide with the country’s biggest holiday in decades, the 100th birthday of former North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, the young leader’s grandfather.
The US and South Korea declared the early morning launch a failure minutes after the rocket shot out from the North’s west coast. North Korea acknowledged its demise four hours later in an announcement broadcast on state TV, saying the satellite the rocket was carrying did not enter orbit.
The launch brought swift international condemnation, including the suspension of US food aid, and raised concerns that the North’s next move could be even more provocative — a nuclear test, the country’s third.
The UN Security Council denounced the launch as a violation of two resolutions that prohibit North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs, and met behind closed doors to consider a response. The council imposed sanctions on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and stepped up sanctions after its second test in 2009.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, called the launch “deplorable” and urged North Korea “not to undertake any further provocative actions that will heighten tension in the region,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
US President Barack Obama said North Korea’s failed rocket launch shows the country is wasting money on rockets that “don’t work” while its people starve.
Obama told Spanish-language TV network Telemundo that the North Koreans have “been trying to launch missiles like this for over a decade now and they don’t seem to be real good at it.”
Still, he called the failed launch on Friday an area of deep concern for the US and said the US would work with other nations to “further isolate” North Korea.
Despite Friday’s failed launch, Pyongyang pressed ahead with grandiose propaganda in praise of the ruling Kim family.
Hours after the explosion, the young Kim was installed as the new head of the powerful National Defense Commission during a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang. It was the last of the top military and party posts intended to consolidate his power after the death of his father, former longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, four months ago.
At a massive gathering later Friday, Kim Jong-un and other senior officials watched the unveiling of an enormous new statue of Kim Jong-il, which stood beside an equally massive one of Kim Il-sung.
Yesterday the North’s official media announced that Kim Jong-un has promoted dozens of general-grade officers to mark the centennial of the birth of his grandfather. The military’s top political officer, Choe Ryong-hae, was also elected a member of the National Defense Commission in the latest reshuffle meant to tighten Kim’s grip on power, the Korean Central News Agency said.
North Korea had trumpeted the launch of its Kwangmyongsong, or “Bright Shining Star,” satellite as a scientific achievement and a gift for its late founder. It cost the impoverished nation about US$850 million, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which estimated the cost of the rocket and its payload alone at US$450 million.
In downtown Pyongyang, university student Kim Kwang-jin was optimistic despite Friday’s failure.
“I’m not too disappointed. There was always the chance of failure,” he said. “Other nations — including China and Russia — have had failures while building their space programs, so why wouldn’t we? I hope that in the future, we’re able to build a better satellite.”
The rocket’s destruction suggests the country has yet to master the technology needed to build long-range missiles that could threaten the US.
Still, worries remain about North Korea’s nuclear program amid reports that it might be planning an atomic test soon.
The launch was condemned by the foreign ministers of the G8 industrialized nations meeting in Washington, including Russia, while Washington said it was suspending plans to contribute food aid to the North in exchange for a rollback of its nuclear programs.
North Korea announced weeks ago that it would launch a long-range rocket mounted with an observational satellite, touting it as a major technological achievement to mark the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth.
The failure “blows a big hole in the birthday party,” said Victor Cha, former director for Asia policy in the US National Security Council. “It’s terribly embarrassing for the North.”
Meanwhile, South Korean warships fanned out across the Yellow Sea yesterday to search for debris from North Korea’s failed rocket launch.
South Korea’s navy has deployed about 10 ships, including a corvette with sonar radars, to search for rocket debris in the Yellow Sea, a South Korean Ministry of Defense official said yesterday, asking not to be named, citing the operational nature of the search. He wouldn’t comment on local media reports that a destroyer is leading the search effort.
US Navy minesweepers and other ships in the area were expected to begin scouring the sea for debris from the rocket, which can offer evidence of what went wrong and what rocket technology North Korea has.
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.
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