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North Korea’s first spy satellite launch has ended in failure after its second stage malfunctioned, sending the projectile plunging into the sea, the country’s state media has said, with the regime vowing to conduct another launch soon.
The new Chollima-1 satellite launch rocket failed due to instability in the engine and fuel system, state news agency the official KCNA news agency said, adding that officials were working to verify the “grave” defects that caused the rocket to malfunction.
The launch was the nuclear-armed state’s sixth satellite launch attempt, and the first since 2016. It was supposed to launch North Korea’s first spy satellite into orbit.
The launch initially prompted confusion in the South Korean capital Seoul after the city briefly issued an evacuation warning in error.
South Korea’s military detected the launch of what Pyongyang has described as a military reconnaissance satellite from the Tongchang County area in the western province of North Pyongan in North Korea, at around 6.29am, heading in a southerly direction, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The military was now analysing whether it may have broken up in mid-air or crashed after vanishing from radar early, the Yonhap news agency reported.
The “projectile disappeared from radar before reaching expected drop point,” Yonhap said, citing the Joint Chiefs, adding that the military was looking at the possibility of it “exploding mid-air or crashing”.
North Korea on Tuesday confirmed it planned to launch what it called “military reconnaissance satellite No. 1!” before 11 June, having told Japan of its plans a day earlier.
Earlier, Tokyo and Seoul strongly criticised the proposed launch, which they said would violate UN sanctions barring Pyongyang from any tests using ballistic missile technology.
Because long-range rockets and space launchers share the same technology, analysts say developing the ability to put a satellite in orbit would provide Pyongyang with cover for testing banned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Soon after the launch, Seoul city authorities sent an emergency text message alert to residents saying: “Citizens, please prepare to evacuate and allow children and the elderly to evacuate first” as an air raid siren sounded in central Seoul.
The alert prompted consternation and confusion on Twitter before Seoul’s interior ministry minutes later said the alert had been “incorrectly issued”.
Japan briefly activated its missile alert warning system for the Okinawa region early Wednesday, lifting it after about 30 minutes.
“Kim stayed true to his word and launched the spy satellite today,” Soo Kim, policy practice area lead at LMI Consulting and a former CIA analyst, told AFP.
“What’s concerning here is that the satellite launch involves the use of ballistic missile technology – which would be a violation of UNSC resolutions.”
North Korea does not have a functioning satellite in space, experts say.
Since 1998, Pyongyang has launched five satellites, three of which failed immediately and two of which appeared to have been put into orbit – but signals from them have never been independently detected, indicating they may have malfunctioned.
North Korea said on Tuesday its new spy satellite would be “indispensable to tracking, monitoring … and coping with in advance in real time the dangerous military acts of the US and its vassal forces”.
Criticising US-South Korea joint military exercises, including ongoing large-scale live-fire drills, a top North Korean military official said Pyongyang felt “the need to expand reconnaissance and information means and improve various defensive and offensive weapons”, state media reported.
Pyongyang, which typically does not give advanced warning of missile launches, has been known to inform international bodies of purportedly peaceful satellite launch plans.
It told Japan on Monday it would launch a rocket between 31 May and 11 June.
In 2012 and 2016, Pyongyang tested ballistic missiles that it called satellite launches. Both flew over Japan’s southern Okinawa region.
Since diplomatic efforts collapsed in 2019, North Korea has doubled down on military development, conducting a string of banned weapons tests, including test-firing multiple ICBMs.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last year declared his country an “irreversible” nuclear power and called for an “exponential” increase in weapons production, including tactical nukes.
Kim identified the development of military satellites as a key defence project, and this month inspected the country’s first military spy satellite as it was prepared for launch, giving the green light for its “future action plan”.
“Whether or not North Korea’s current satellite mission is a success, Pyongyang can be expected to issue political propaganda about its space capabilities,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
South Korea’s foreign ministry earlier this week condemned the launch plan, saying the “so-called ‘satellite launch’ is a serious violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning all launches using ballistic missile technology”.
“If North Korea eventually goes ahead with the launch, it will have to bear the price and pain it deserves.”