North Korea confirmed that its effort to launch a military spy satellite into orbit failed, and said it would try again soon.
A rocket launched on Wednesday crashed into the Yellow Sea after losing propulsion in the second stage of the ascent, according to the Korean Central News Agency. Authorities will analyze the cause of the accident and launch another rocket soon, it added.
The launch came days after leader Kim Jong Un said Pyongyang planned to put a reconnaissance satellite in orbit, sparking warnings from Japan and South Korea. Both countries said that any launch using ballistic missile technology would be a breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions, and they urged North Korea to abandon the plan.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that there were no reports of damage so far. Japan on Wednesday issued a missile alert for the southern prefecture of Okinawa, which it later lifted.
South Korea warned residents of Seoul to take shelter, an alert it later said was sent in error. After the mobile alert was issued to seek shelter, pedestrians were seen rushing toward subway stops. Some people stopped walking on the streets to check their phones but they soon resumed their movements.
The launch comes after South Korea last week successfully launched its first rocket and satellite made from parts sourced in the nation, showcasing the world that the country has the ability to send satellites into orbit from a homegrown space vehicle, as previous launches used rockets from other countries.
While North Korea has launched a barrage of missiles this year, it last launched a space rocket in February 2016, when the country claimed to have put an observation satellite into orbit as part of what it said was a lawful space program. The satellite is thought to have never reached orbit.
While the country is barred by the UNSC resolutions from conducting ballistic missile tests, Pyongyang has long claimed it is entitled to have a civilian space program for satellite launches.
Analysts say that what’s concerning is not just about North Korea improving its ballistic missile technology, which the country has already made progress on, but also about the potential improvement of North Korea’s information-gathering capabilities, which would give the North the ability to monitor the movements from the American military ahead of time.
North Korea believes that their nuclear capabilities are not complete without the completion of spy satellites that can oversee the movements of American military from the sky, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Pyongyang has been all this time developing ballistic missile technology to launch reconnaissance satellites. It has been developing ICBMs, tactical nukes, and so on, but their argument is that they are only half effective without a spy satellite,” he said.
The U.S. and its partners have warned that technology derived from the North Korea’s space program could be used to advance its ballistic missile technology.
Still, Pyongyang’s directing testing of ballistic missiles is taking place with far more frequency. North Korea has tested 17 so far in 2023, including a new type of solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang says could deliver multiple nuclear warheads to the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. push to isolate Russia over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, coupled with increasing animosity toward China, has allowed Kim to strengthen his weapons technology without fear of facing more sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
There’s almost no chance Russia or China, which have veto power at the council, would support any measures against North Korea, as they did in 2017 following a series of weapons tests that prompted former President Donald Trump to warn of “fire and fury.”
“The problem right now is that the U.N. Security Council is dysfunctional because China and Russia are on the side of North Korea,” said Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist at Rand Corp. in Washington.
“There were new sanctions against North Korea in 2016, but that is unlikely to take place today. This is of course because of larger geopolitics at play, including the U.S.-China competition and the war in Ukraine.”
(With assistance from Youkyung Lee, Isabel Reynolds, Seyoon Kim, Shinhye Kang and Go Onomitsu.)