The failure will pile pressure on Kim Jong-eun, the new leader of North Korea, whom analysts believe may seek to restore his credentials by conducting a nuclear test. In recent days, South Korean media have reported that North Korea was already planning another nuclear test. It followed a long-range missile launch in 2009 with an atomic test.
South Korea and the US said the Eunha-3 (Galaxy) rocket blasted off at 7.39am local time, but broke apart after about 90 seconds, sending shattered fuselage into the Yellow Sea.
In an unusual move for a country that almost never admits internal problems, a newscaster on state television said the rocket had not sent a satellite into space.
Later, state media said Mr Kim had been made “first chairman” of the National Defence Commission, giving him the post his father Kim Jong-il used to rule the country until his death late last year. Kim Jong-il was given the new posthumous title of “eternal chairman”.
The US, Japan, South Korea and Australia criticised the missile launch, which they say contravened UN resolutions. At Japan’s request, the UN Security Council will meet later on Friday to discuss the controversial move.
The White House said the “provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments”. China called for “calm and restraint”, a foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The Pentagon said the first stage of the three-stage rocket appeared to have fallen into the ocean 165km west of Seoul. “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,” it said.
The South Korean defence ministry said the rocket reached a height of 150km over Baengnyeong island on the maritime border between the two Koreas. It said the rocket then broke into about 20 pieces, spreading debris over an area between 100km and 150km from South Korea’s west coast.
“It is very regrettable that North Korea uses massive funds to develop nuclear weapons and missile technology, overlooking chronic food shortages and the desperate livelihoods of ordinary people,” said Kim Sung-hwan, the South Korean foreign minister.
Japan had been on high alert ahead of the launch with some public events cancelled on remote islands close to the rocket’s line of flight. But Osamu Fujimura, chief cabinet secretary, said there was now no need for concern as debris from the failed rocket was not seen as posing any risk to nationals.
The rocket launch was part of a programme to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, founder of the nation, on April 15. North Korea’s propagandists are using the 2012 celebrations to proclaim that the dictatorship has passed through “the gateway of a mighty and prosperous nation”.
In the face of international scepticism, Pyongyang insisted that the rocket was not part of a ballistic weapons programme but would put a weather satellite into orbit. It has described the satellite as the “crème” of the country’s space technology and the launch as an “inspiring deed”. KCNA, the official state news agency, on Monday said the satellite was “needed for the country’s economic development”.
“Never before has so much been put in jeopardy for so little,” said John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the US Senate foreign affairs committee. “No one in the world, including North Korea’s allies, believed this was just an attempt to launch a satellite and no one will accept their pledges to co-operate on denuclearisation and lasting peace while they’re conducting rocket launches.”
Kim Jong-eun, who replaced his father Kim Jong-il last year when the former leader died, closely associates himself with rocketry and military technology in state propaganda and is using the launch as a way to consolidate his power.
North Korea last launched a long-range missile in 2009, which it said carried a satellite into orbit, but the US and Japan dismissed those claims.
Asian equities advanced after the missile launch, buoyed by a strong sessions in US and European markets overnight. The FTSE Asia ex-Japan index was up 1 per cent by early evening in Hong Kong. In Seoul, the Kospi index closed 1.1 per cent higher, while the Korean won rose 0.5 per cent against the US dollar.