SEOUL, South Korea — 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 its 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 to apply more pressure on Washington and Seoul while diplomacy is stalled.
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.
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.
Wednesday's launch prompted brief evacuation alerts in South Korea and Japan. 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 rocket had “an abnormal flight” before it fell in the waters. 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 China and Russia, permanent council members now locked in confrontations with the U.S., have blocked attempts to toughen sanctions over Pyongyang’s recent tests.
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. “We’ve made preparations to respond to any possible emergency,” Hamada said.
The South’s capital city of Seoul issued alerts over public speakers 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.
“Please evacuate into buildings or underground,” the alert said. Both the alerts in Okinawa and Seoul were later lifted
South Korea's Defense Ministry later Wednesday released photos of a white, metal cylinder it described as a suspected rocket part. The South Korean military earlier 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.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency said authorities would thoroughly investigate “the serious defects revealed” in the launch, overcome them and conduct a second launch as soon as possible.
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.
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.
A top North Korean official had said Tuesday that the country 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 be able to detect troop movements and big targets, such as warships and warplanes.
Recent commercial satellite imagery of the North’s main rocket launch center showed active construction indicating North Korea plans to launch more than one satellite.
And in his statement Tuesday, Ri Pyong Chol, a close associate of leader Kim Jong Un, said the country it would be testing “various reconnaissance means.” He said those surveillance assets are tasked with “tracking, monitoring, discriminating, controlling” and responding, both in advance and real time, to moves by the United States and its allies.
During his visit to the country’s aerospace agency earlier this month, Kim emphasized the strategic significance a spy satellite could have in North Korea’s standoff with the United States and South Korea.
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 he has pledged to develop include a multi-warhead missile, a nuclear submarine, a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile and a hypersonic missile.
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.
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.