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North Korean Rocket Fizzles Shortly After Liftoff

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong, third from right, arrives at the United Nations on Friday ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting on North Korea's long-range rocket launch. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the council "deplored" the launch of the rocket, which came apart shortly after takeoff (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews). Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong, third from right, arrives at the United Nations on Friday ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting on North Korea's long-range rocket launch. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the council "deplored" the launch of the rocket, which came apart shortly after takeoff (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews).

The U.S. Northern Command and NORAD on Thursday confirmed that North Korea had launched a long-range rocket but said the system failed shortly after liftoff (see GSN, April 12).

The military organizations identified the object as a North Korean Taepodong 2 missile, which they said was under U.S. monitoring during its short flight southward above the Yellow Sea.

The missile's first stage splashed down slightly more than 100 miles west of Seoul, South Korea, according to a press 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 release states (North American Aerospace Defense Command/U.S. Northern Command release, April 12).

Pyongyang ignored repeated calls from various nations to cancel what it claimed was an attempt to place a weather observation satellite into orbit. The United States and a number of North Korea's neighbors viewed the rocket launch as a facade for another illegal long-range ballistic missile test.

The flight lasted barely more than two minutes before the rocket "splintered into two parts, probably due to a blast" and then came apart further, Agence France-Presse quoted the South Korean Defense Ministry as saying (Simon Martin, Agence France-Presse I/Jakarta Globe, April 13).

The breakup of the Unha 3 rocket not long after it left the ground is seen as a great humiliation for the new Kim Jong Un government, which had previously touted the launch as proof of North Korea's technological advancement and had timed it with other national celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim's grandfather, regime founder Kim Il Sung, the New York Times reported.

The North's official news agency took the unusual step of publicly admitting a state failure when it announced several hours after the launch that the satellite "failed to enter its preset orbit." Specialists were "looking into the cause of the failure," the report said.

Previous attempts to place satellites into space using modified versions of long-range missiles were also unsuccessful but North Korea either celebrated those efforts as successes or did not admit publicly to their failures.

Three previous long-range rocket firings have all been largely failures. Most recently, in 2009, the third stage failed to come off what observers said was a Taepodong 2 missile (Choe/Gladstone, New York Times, April 13).

The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session on Friday to address the rocket launch, but held off on imposing any immediate penalties, Reuters reported.

"Members of the Security Council deplored this launch, which is in violation of Security Council resolutions," said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who this month holds the rotating council presidency.

Discussions are expected to continue, according to the report (Nichols/Charbonneau, Reuters I, April 13).

Rice said the powerful U.N. body believes "credible action is important," the Associated Press reported (Associated Press I/CBS News, April 13).

South Korea and Japan favor a strong punishment of the North, which has been under heightened Security Council sanctions since its last nuclear test in spring 2009, AFP reported. However, worries that the mercurial and isolated state could respond to new U.N. punishments with a third atomic blast are expected to temper any council response.

"We have to hold our fire. This was bad, but we have to expect worse to come," an anonymous high-ranking U.N. diplomat said before the council meeting.

South Korean intelligence officials recently said they had detected preparations at North Korea's atomic test site that show a third underground nuclear explosion could be in the works (see related GSN story, today; Agence France-Presse II/Spacewar.com, April 12).

U.N. Secretary General characterized the North Korean rocket firing as "deplorable," AFP reported (Martin, Agence France-Presse).

The Obama administration also condemned the attempt as illegal and dangerous troublemaking that would leave North Korea even more cut off from the world, Reuters reported.

"Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in released remarks.

"While this action is not surprising given North Korea's pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security (of) our allies in the region," he continued.
 
Carney reaffirmed the administration's policy of being open to productive dialogue with the North. "However, [President Obama] has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors" (Jeff Mason, Reuters II, April 12).
 
The Obama administration in the last year held three rounds of nuclear talks with the North. The most recent session resulted in the late February announcement of a bilateral deal to send 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food assistance to the starving country in exchange for its monitored shutdown of certain atomic activities at the Yongbyon complex and a moratorium on further long-range missile and nuclear tests.
 
The deal for a brief period raised hopes that a moribund multinational process aimed at North Korea's permanent denuclearization could be reinvigorated. That optimism was punctured when Pyongyang in mid-March declared its intention to fire a rocket into space in apparent contravention of the terms of the agreement with Washington.
 
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday declared the North would effectively kill the agreement if it proceeded with its rocket firing, Foreign Policy reported.
 
Anonymous Obama officials earlier defended their record in bilateral negotiations and said special envoy Glyn Davies and U.S. representative to the six-party nuclear talks Clifford Hart informed North Korean diplomats that the White House would view any satellite launch as a violation of the terms of the food assistance agreement. 
 
Nonproliferation analyst Jeffrey Lewis, though, said the U.S. negotiators could have erred in believing that merely telling the North the U.S. position on rocket launches and then having the diplomats repeat it back constituted a North Korean acceptance of the restriction.
 
"Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch. ...The problem is that telling the D.P.R.K. is not the same thing as the D.P.R.K. agreed," Lewis said in a blog post for Arms Control Wonk (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, April 12).
 
The administration formally announced on Friday that it would cancel the food assistance agreement, Reuters reported.
 
"We are not going forward with an agreement to provide them with any assistance," White House National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes said (Laura MacInnis, Reuters III, April 13).
 
In the wake of the rocket launch, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney characterized President Obama as weak on North Korea, AFP reported.
 
"President Obama has no effective response" to Pyongyang's weapons development, the former Massachusetts governor said. "Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived."
 
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in provided remarks said the satellite firing "illustrates once again that trying to negotiate with the regime is a fool's errand" (Agence France-Presse III/Spacewar.com, April 12).
 
Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi on Friday indicated further national financial penalties could be passed against North Korea as punishment for the rocket firing, Reuters reported.
 
"It's become clear that (North Korea) launched a flying object so I'll consider if necessary how to respond to it while taking into account movements in the international community" (Tetsushi Kajimoto, Reuters IV, April 12).
 
Ex-State Department intelligence officer Greg Thielmann said based on Friday's unsuccessful launch, it would seem the North has yet to acquire the capacity to manage high-performing multistage rockets, which is a crucial requirement for the development of ICBMs, AP reported (Jean Lee, Associated Press II/Google News, April 13).
 
In North Korea's 1998, 2006, and 2009 launches, the first rocket splashed down in the Sea of Japan but was touted by the regime as a major accomplishment, the second exploded less than a minute after liftoff ;and the third was promoted as a satellite-deploying success though independent specialists roundly concluded otherwise, Wired reported.
 
There is a basis for thinking the Stalinist state is actually moving backward in its long-range missile development, ex-U.S. Air Force Space Command officer Brian Weeden said.
 
"If the North Koreans were making progress with their missile program, you would expect to see them fixing problems after each failure and fine-tuning the technology. Instead, you see a range of different failure modes, indicating they are not really making much progress and actually may be going backwards as they keep making changes without truly understanding what went wrong in each case," Wired quoted him as saying (Spencer Ackerman, Wired, April 12).
 
Aeronautics specialist Christian Lardier, who was in Pyongyang to witness the launch, predicted that another rocket firing could come in several years, RIA Novosti reported.
 
"For North Korea, this program is 20 years old and they have already made three failed launches, so of course it's a problem. But they will not give up. They will try to find the reason of the failure, they will fix it and they will try again within two to three years," Lardier said (RIA Novosti, April 13).

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