SEOUL—North Korea's latest attempt to fire off a long-range rocket followed the same pattern as previous efforts except for one potentially significant difference: this time it admitted failure.
Nearly a month after announcing its intentions, North Korea early Friday launched a newly designed, three-stage rocket, which it said was destined for space but other countries feared was a intercontinental missile in disguise. Less than two minutes after launch, the rocket crashed off the west coast of South Korea, whose navy Saturday deployed about 10 warships in search of debris, a Defense Ministry official said, according to the Associated Press.
The news of the failed launch was quickly relayed by South Korean and U.S. officials, whose militaries monitored the flight. About four hours later, North Korea itself announced the launch had failed.
Among North Korea observers, that acknowledgment became almost as significant as the launch itself and fed into speculation about what its authoritarian regime will do next and how far the admission of failure had weakened its grip on power.
Read about back and forth developments since the early 1990s.
"If you look back to their statements through history, they never say anything like this," Choi Jong-kun, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The launch embarrassment also raises the probability that North Korea's leadership will test a nuclear device in the near future, as it did after previous long-range missile tests in 2006 and 2009, many analysts said after the crash.
"The regime may be politically tempted to conduct nuclear tests to save face, but that would directly irritate China, which North Korea is economically dependent on," Lee Jong-won, professor at Waseda University, said in Tokyo. "This poses a dilemma."
U.S. officials said its military and intelligence agencies are working to determine what caused the North Korean missile launch to fail. President Barack Obama said the U.S. will work to try to further isolate North Korea in the wake of its failed missile launch. "We will continue to keep the pressure on them and they'll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path," he said in an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo en route to to a summit in Latin America.
North Korea's Failed Launch
He added that the North Korean nuclear program is an area of "deep concern," but added, "They've been trying to launch missiles like this for over a decade now and they don't seem to be real good at it."
Ben Rhodes, a deputy U.S. national security adviser, said he expected consultations would begin at the United Nations Security Council about an international response to North Korea's actions and possible "additional steps" if there are further provocative actions. The U.S. canceled plans to provide food aid to North Korea after the launch attempt.
U.S. intelligence agencies have long held that North Korea could have a missile capable of reaching the United States as early as 2015 or 2016, and Pentagon officials cautioned against assuming the latest failure meant Pyongyang's advancement toward an intercontinental ballistic missile has slowed.
"Their recent track record is not good," Mr. Little said. "This is, in our estimation, their third failed attempt.…They obviously have a ways to go with their capabilities."
But Mr. Little added: "We're not ready to say that somehow the brakes are on North Korean military advancements."
Still, North Korea's acknowledgment of the failure may be a sign that the ability of the regime to control information, which has been important to its maintenance of power, is eroding, some analysts said.
"They're losing their grip on the flow of information in and out of the country," said Peter Beck, director of the Korea office of the Asia Foundation.
Mr. Beck said the risk to the regime stemmed not from immediate reports, but the prospect that word of the failure would get back to North Koreans through people who travel outside the country, or via DVDs and other materials that are illegal but increasingly available.
"They decided it would be better to get out in front it rather than having the failure spread through word of month," he said. Some noted that, after enduring a month of international criticism for the launch and inviting foreign reporters to see the rocket earlier this week, the government had no other choice but to break with past claims of successful launches, despite their failure.
As part of an effort to persuade other countries that its rocket was heading to space and was not a missile, North Korea this week invited about 50 reporters from other countries to visit the launch site, as well as its space-command center near Pyongyang. Though the reporters weren't allowed to watch the launch, their presence may have pressured the government to acknowledge the failure.
"It was impossible for North Korea to assert the rocket launch was successful." said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.
North Korea's government has long generated support for its dictators by creating mythological stories about them and keeping its 24 million people largely cut off from outside information. Its officials hoped the rocket launch would become another chapter in the mythology and said it was timed to commemorate the anniversary of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder and first leader, Kim Il Sung.
North Korea took another step in building up the image of the current leader Kim Jong Eun later on Friday when its Supreme People's Assembly gave him the final title that his father and grandfather had before him—chairman of the National Defense Commission, considered the most powerful organ in the state.
Among those mythmaking efforts in years past, North Korea claimed that two previous rockets, which other countries also tracked until they crashed, successfully sent satellites into space. Some observers expected North Korea to pretend Friday's crash didn't happen.
Instead, its main TV network broke into programming early Friday afternoon for an anchorwoman to deliver a three-sentence announcement that concluded, "Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure."
North Korean authorities gave no further explanation, but military officials in South Korea and the U.S. said the rocket apparently failed around the time its first stage was complete and second stage was taking over.
South Korea's military said the rocket crashed in two parts. The first part split into 10 pieces that fell in waters west and slightly south of Seoul. The second part flew a bit farther south, then broke in three pieces into waters west of Gunsan.
The White House said the "provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its recent commitments."
Asked Friday why the U.S. canceled plans to provide food aid to North Korean people because of their government's actions, Mr. Rhodes said the lack of trust on security issues had implications for other programs.
"We cannot trust the government to provide that assistance to the people who need it. It is the North Korean government who is holding its own people hostage," Mr. Rhodes said.
He also denied the launch meant that President Obama's effort to engage the North Korea was a failure.
"Absolutely not," he said. "What this administration has done has broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past. Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea. North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions. Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea."
He said the administration made it clear that talks with Pyongyang about possibly giving food aid in exchange for a freeze in North Korea's enrichment activities and a move toward denuclearization could not advance if the leadership didn't keep its commitments. "And their efforts to launch a missile clearly demonstrates that they could not be trusted to keep their commitments, therefore we're not going forward with an agreement to provide them with any assistance," Mr. Rhodes added.
—Soo-ah Shin in Seoul, Alexander Martin in Tokyo, and Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman in Washington contributed to this article.
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