Defying international concerns, North Korea fired a long-range rocket early Friday, but it appears to have fallen into the sea, splintering moments after takeoff, South Korean and U.S. officials said.
The liftoff took place at 7:39 a.m. (2139 GMT Thursday) from the west coast launch pad in the hamlet of Tongchang-ri, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said, citing South Korean and U.S. intelligence.
The two countries as well as many others had warned against the launch, calling it a provocation and a cover to test missile technology. North Korea had insisted it would not back down, and said the rocket would only carry a satellite, touting it as a major technological achievement to mark the 100th birth anniversary of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, on Sunday.
Still, if the U.S. report of a failure, backed by Japan and South Korea, is true, it would be a major embarrassment for Pyongyang, which has invited dozens of international journalists to observe the rocket launch and other celebrations.
It has staked its pride on the satellite launch seen as a show of strength amid persistent economic hardship as Kim Il Sung's grandson, Kim Jong Un, solidifies power following the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, four months ago.
"It blows a big hole in the birthday party," said Victor Cha, former director for Asia policy in the U.S. National Security Council, contacted in Washington. "It's terribly embarrassing for the North."
He said the next step would be to watch whether North Korea would conduct a nuclear test, as has been speculated by the South Korean intelligence community. North Korea is reportedly making preparations for such a test soon.
"We have to watch very carefully what they are doing now at the nuclear test site and how they explain this with all those foreign journalists in the country," Cha said.
In Pyongyang, there was no word about a launch, and at the time, state television was broadcasting video of popular folk tunes. North Korean officials said they would make an announcement about the launch "soon."
It had earlier said that the rocket would be fired any day between April 12 and April 16. The daily window was supposed to be 9 a.m. to noon.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said the rocket launch was confirmed a "failure." He provided no details.
But earlier, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters the rocket splintered into pieces moments after takeoff.
In Washington, a U.S. official also said the launch appeared to have failed. The official offered no further details and would not discuss the source of the U.S. information.
"We suspect the North Korean missile has fallen as it divided into pieces minutes after liftoff," Tokyo, which was prepared to shoot down any rocket flying over its territory, also confirmed a launch from North Korea.
"We have confirmed that a certain flying object has been launched and fell after flying for just over a minute," Japan's Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said. He said there was no impact on Japanese territory.
North Korean space officials said the Unha-3 rocket is meant to send a satellite into orbit to study crops and weather patterns — its third bid to launch a satellite since 1998. Officials took foreign journalists to the west coast site to see the rocket and the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite Sunday in a bid to show its transparency amid accusations of defiance.
"For all their advanced technology, these rockets are fairly fragile things," said Brian Weeden, a technical adviser at Secure World Foundation who is a former Air Force officer at the U.S. Space Command. "You're looking at a metal cylinder that has fairly thin walls that contains a lot of high pressure liquid."
Weeden said the launch appeared to be a failure of both space and missile objectives.
"The earlier it breaks up, the less data you've collected, so the less useful that test is likely to be," he said. "It's very likely that the U.S. and its allies probably gathered more info about this test than the North Koreans have."
He said U.S. and other nations had been poised to keep close watch on the launch to gather intelligence about the state of North Korea's rocket program.
The United States, Britain, Japan and others have called such a launch a violation of U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity.
Experts say the Unha-3 carrier is the same type of rocket that would be used to launch a long-range missile aimed at the U.S. and other targets. North Korea has tested two atomic devices but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking for the Group of Eight nations after their foreign ministers met in Washington, said Thursday that all the members of the bloc agreed to be prepared to take further action against North Korea in the Security Council if the launch went ahead.
"Pyongyang has a clear choice: It can pursue peace and reap the benefits of closer ties with the international community, including the United States; or it can continue to face pressure and isolation," Clinton said.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was convening an emergency security meeting, officials said.